Pick me up, girl.
I’m such a pretty, delicate thing, hidden behind the gondola’s cushion. You feel me before you see me: the soft velvet of the cushions suddenly replaced by the roughness of my lace and the cool touch of my silk. Your fingers are smooth as you gently pull me from the shadows. My graceful curves would fit perfectly over your lovely face, but for now, you place me in your lap and glance at your sister, sitting beside you. Poor Francesca, clutching her rosary beads and saying her Ave Marias. She doesn’t even notice you’ve found me.
The gondoliere, then? Did he see? But he doesn’t look at you, his eyes are turned towards the canal. If you ask him who sat here before you, he’ll say he doesn’t remember. The gondolieri have terrible memories when it comes to faces and names.
No, my previous owner is no concern of yours.
It feels good to touch me, doesn’t it? It feels like a promise of joy on this bleak January morning, the fog so thick you can barely see the mooring poles in the canal. You feel the warm candlelight dancing across glowing skin and sparkling jewels, you imagine my sleek form snug against your cheeks, you hear the laughter and the clink of glasses. Carnival is in your blood, you can feel it at night, coming like a tidal wave, ready to flood this city.
You know you want me, girl. Slip me in your pocket.
The gondola slows as the magnificent Corinthian columns of the Salute emerge from the fog.
Francesca takes your hand. “Maybe Mamma will be well enough to come with us next Sunday.”
“How can she get well,” you mutter under your breath, “when Papà keeps spending all our money at the Ridotto?”
Francesca shuffles behind you like a child as you enter the church, too afraid to lift her head. You, on the other hand, are not afraid. I’ve heard what they are saying about your father, about your family. But you hold your head up high as you walk among the pews, avoiding their stares.
But wait, there’s one gaze that does not give up so easily on you. Oh, look at those dark eyes, those sharp cheekbones, those lustrous curls framing his beautiful face. Domenico. The tips of his fingers touch his mouth casually; it’s a kiss only you can recognize. His cuffs are frayed, I see, and the lace is not as white as it should be. But those eyes... Come on, girl, smile at him, let me see him blush.
There’s nothing like young love.
As you sit down beside your sister, your thoughts are in disarray, your heart aflutter. I believe I know what I must do to help you.
Your father’s palazzo is slowly sinking into the green waters of the canal. You barely notice the musty smell as you return from mass, or see the cracked terrazzo under your feet. You climb up, away from the offensive odour, and enter your mother’s chamber. The curtains are drawn against the chilly fog and the depressing January light.
You take her gaunt white hand and kiss her clammy forehead. “Will you not get up, Mamma? Francesca and I can help you.”
She waves your suggestion away. “Tell me what you’ve seen today.”
I feel your teeth dig into the soft flesh of your lip; what is there to tell? You cannot mention Domenico. A third son with no money, what match is that? It crosses your mind to mention me. Your hand reaches into your pocket, touching my frills, but I dissuade you quickly. Your mother is a sick woman, it would only make her worry more.
“Have you seen Sior Alvise?” she asks.
Well, have you? You haven’t even looked, you hate the sight of him, but that’s another thing you cannot tell your mother.
“No, Mamma. I was praying to Our Lady for you to feel better.”
You lie well, girl. Your mother rolls her bloodshot eyes impatiently. “Leave the prayers to Francesca, and make yourself more desirable to him.”
“Sior Alvise, Mamma? Why?”
Her skeletal fingers grab you, but her voice is anguished as she says, “He’s offered to buy your father’s gambling debts. You are this family’s only hope.”
Ah, I understand now. You bite your tongue and nod. Your eyes fill with tears, but your mother pretends she doesn’t see them.
“There is a ball in three days’ time,” your mother says, “and Sior Alvise has requested your presence.”
Your heart sinks like a stone thrown into a well, and you wish you could follow it into the darkness.
“You should rest, Mamma.”
You take your leave and walk the dim corridors, where plaster peels off the walls and the painted faces of Greek gods grow mouldy.
Back in your room, Francesca is on her knees. Latin words slip off her tongue in a passionate whisper. You think of Christ on the cross, his body smooth and cold, his face impassive. It would be easier to give yourself to him than to Alvise Manin, with his intrusive hands and bad breath. But it is too late now, that path is closed to you.
Your fingers touch my silk and it brings you comfort. You need to find a place for me. No, not on the dressing table, you silly girl, your father could walk in and see me. The chest is no good either, too far from you. Under your pillow? Yes, that’s good, I want to see your dreams.
You cry yourself to sleep every night, thinking your heart will break. I share my sacred shelter with a crumpled letter kissed so many times the ink has become blotched. Domenico has heard of your father’s plans. He’s desperate, he wants to kill Manin, kill your father, kill himself. He’s raging, he curses his impoverished family, he curses the greed this city was built on, he promises he will become rich soon, he has a plan, a plan that will work, must work. He begs you to wait, to stay strong and defy your father. He loves you, he spends his every waking moment thinking about you, he cannot imagine his life without you.
You must reply to him, girl. Love needs hope to thrive.
Beside you, Francesca sleeps like an angel.
I cannot disobey my father, but I must see you one last time before that dreadful old man locks me up forever. My heart belongs to you and always will.
The seamstress brings you the gown. It’s dove-grey silk with white lace. When your maid corsets you, your breasts swell like sweet dough in a warm oven. You can barely breathe but your waist is so tiny you can encircle it with your hands.
You are beautiful, girl. Your black hair, your dark, burning eyes, your strikingly pale skin. But all you feel is despair when you look in the mirror. You wish you were a drab little mouse like Francesca. There would be no rich suitors then, no opportunity to sell you. I’m tempted to remind you that without your beauty there might be no Domenico either, but I keep my thoughts to myself.
“Bellissima,” your father tells you when he comes to take you to the ball. He’s wearing a long, trailing black robe, with the mask of Il Dottore in his hand. “My little dove, my colombina.” His eyes light up when he looks at you, but it is a shining heap of ducats you see behind them.
“But this is not a costume,” you say, your fingers searching for the comforting touch of my silk deep in your pocket. “I don’t have a mask.”
“Sior Alvise wants your beauty to shine without distractions.”
So, they’ve taken that from you, as well. Your whole life, people have been telling you about magnificent balls in the gilded salons overlooking Canal Grande. You’ve dreamed about the music and laughter, about holding hands with a masked man you know and yet you don’t, because even the smallest mask will change the person wearing it. You’ve dreamed about the excitement, mystery and stolen kisses behind screens and curtains.
“Everyone will stare at me.”
“They will admire your beauty.”
“I’m not an object to be admired,” you say, but it’s just a whisper your father doesn’t hear. He’s already walking out of the room, expecting you to follow him.
The lamps on the colourful posts in front of the Palazzo Manin shine so brightly it seems like a golden star has landed in the dark waters of the canal. It’s still early, the guests have not yet arrived. The servants guide you through lavish salons filled with flowers. Chandeliers hover like frozen fireworks in the air; ornate mirrors multiply your reflection until there are a thousand Caterinas staring at you, their eyes like dark holes in their pale faces. You wish you could just walk into a mirror and switch places with one of them, and I’m tempted to grant it. But no, where would be the fun in that?
“Pinch your cheeks,” your father hisses, “and smile.”
You sniffle and turn your head away, but when he pushes you towards your suitor, who waits in his study standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips, you curtsy like a good girl.
Sior Alvise—ease me from your pocket so I can see him. Eyes like shiny beads and wet, pursed lips eager to kiss you. Red brocade stretched taut over his belly. We have our Pantalone, I believe. You recoil from his outstretched hand, and he retreats for now and greets your father instead.
While they talk, you look around the room. A beautifully carved writing desk, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, silver candelabra, gilded inkwell. Instead of a mirror above the fireplace, there is a fantastic painting: Venus at her toilet. The goddess lounges on red velvet cushions, her pink flesh exposed, warm and so alive you want to touch it. Cupid holds a little mirror in front of her. The divine eyes watch you, inviting and deriding at the same time.
“Caterina.” Your father’s voice snaps you out of your daydream. “Sior Alvise has something for you.”
The old man takes a key out of his pocket and unlocks a chest on his desk. He pulls out an object so bright it seems he’s holding light itself, the essence of brilliance. You forget yourself for a second, your dour expression replaced by wonder.
“A small present for my beautiful little dove,” he says and you see it’s a necklace with diamonds as large and numerous as the tears you cried last night. “Allow me.”
Before you can move, the diamond noose is around your neck, its cold weight dragging you down. The old man’s fingers touch your skin, caress your collarbone, and slip down the soft slopes of your breasts.
Your father admires the painting of Venus.
“Wonderful,” Sior Alvise murmurs, his lips fat and glistening, making you so ill you want to retch. Then he turns back to the desk and takes a stack of papers out of the chest. “Your debts, Sior Lodovico. Do we have a deal?”
“Yes.” Your father keeps his face impassive, like a true gambler, but you know him well enough to recognize a flicker of relief in his eyes. He shakes Sior Alvise’s hand, bows to him, and leaves. You can’t decide which is worse—that he does not give you so much as a glance on his way out, or that you ached that he would.
Sior Alvise whispers in your ear. “Now that you are mine, I’ll cover you in jewels from head to toe.”
You shudder, feeling soiled by his paws, his garlic-tinged breath. You wish you could jump through the window, sink into the freezing water, and let the soft mud cover you until nothing but the bare bones and hard diamonds remain.
You see Domenico in the crowd, and there is such a sweet ache in your chest you forget to breathe. He wears a mask that covers his forehead and nose, leaving his beautiful lips free for kissing. He smiles at you as your eyes meet across the room, then he notices the diamonds around your neck and his smile turns sour.
You push through the merry crowd, trying to reach him, ignoring the barrage of compliments and hands that try to grab you as you pass. You catch up with him beside a tall window and reach for his hand.
He shakes you off. “You look like a harlot,” he says, but his voice trembles and his eyes are filled with tears.
“What do you want me to do?” you whisper. “I can scream no all the way to the church, but my father will still drag me there. I can marry Manin or I can die. Is that what you want? If I need to throw myself off a bridge to prove that I love you, I will.”
He pushes you behind the velvet curtain and kisses you so hard your knees buckle. His lips slide down your neck, his hand tears the necklace off as his caresses cover your hot skin.
“Stop, Domenico, stop. They’ll see us.”
“I don’t care.” He shakes his fist and squeezes the diamonds so hard it seems he wants to crush them. “I’ll tell him.”
And he’s gone, marching through the crowd towards your resplendent suitor. You watch in horror as Domenico approaches him, calls his name. You see a flash of light and your necklace hits Manin in the face, drawing blood.
“Caterina will never be yours, you filthy old letch!” Domenico shouts. “She loves me!”
All hell erupts in the salon.
You slip back behind the curtain, trembling, tears rolling down your cheeks. There’s nowhere to run. Your father will kill you. There’s no way you can get out.
Or is there?
You think it’s a ridiculous idea. How can you hide behind a small piece of silk and lace that barely covers a third of your face? But you have me in your pocket, you brought me here, and now you take me out and study me.
Put me on, girl, you’ve nothing to lose. Let me touch your smooth brow; your wet, flushed cheeks. Tie that ribbon behind your head, let me become a part of you. It feels reassuring to wear me, doesn’t it?
Let the men fight out there. Behind this curtain, it’s just me and you. And the carnival, yes. It’s more than these lights and music and sparkling wine. It engulfs you, it turns you inside out and it shows you who you really are. The mask becomes your true face, the one you keep hidden on all other days.
Little dove, look at your gown. It’s no longer grey. A red diamond here, a yellow one there. It’s motley, as it should be. The shy, timid Caterina is gone. You are Colombina now, fearless and cheerful and shrewd. You know the part; you’ve seen it a hundred times on makeshift stages in the crowded squares of this city that adores its commedia dell’arte. You were born to play it.
Step out, now, no-one will recognize you. Glide through the crowd. There’s your Sior Alvise, sitting on the floor, dazed. His lip is split, his cheek bruised, but only his pride is seriously injured. And look, there’s your Domenico, too. Manin’s servants are dragging him out as he struggles and curses.
You grab a glass of wine from a tray and kneel down beside Manin. His eyes are unfocused, he has no idea who you are.
“Drink this,” you whisper, “and you’ll feel better.”
As he takes the glass, you slip your hand into his pocket. The diamond necklace is there, but its cold touch makes you shiver. No, you’re looking for something else.
“Thank you,” you whisper in Manin’s ear.
“Thank you, signorina,” he stammers.
You’re already in the corridor. No, don’t run, walk briskly like you know what you’re doing. The servants are all occupied, there’s no-one to see you as you sneak into the study. Moonlight flows through the windows as you approach the desk. The chest is still there, you slip Manin’s key in the lock and turn it. Carefully, you lift the lid.
Oh, look at that!
Manin certainly has enough jewels to cover you in them. You are still staring at the gold and the shiny gems when you feel someone’s eyes on you. You freeze, your heart stops for a second. Slowly, slowly you dare to look around. There, in the shadows, was there movement? You hold your breath. But there’s nobody there, the study is empty. You lift your head.
Venus is watching you. She looks amused as you push the gold away and grab the papers.
“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” you whisper as you throw the papers, your father’s debts, into the fire. “Papà is free now, he doesn’t have to sell me. Or Francesca.”
The goddess makes no reply.
You walk back from the study towards the salons. The music and laughter tell you the ball is at its height. You plan to sneak past, when you hear your father’s voice.
“No, I haven’t seen Caterina.” He sounds shrill and angry. “That horrible young man must have frightened her. Send your servants to search the house.”
“That horrible young man obviously knew her.” That’s Manin, even angrier. “I’m sure they’ve planned this together, to humiliate me.”
“How dare you suggest—”
“Dare? This is my house. And if your daughter doesn’t appear this moment, begging for forgiveness, I will call in your debts.”
You just smile and walk by. No, not towards the main entrance. Do you think Manin wants the whole world to see his shame? Through the kitchen, there’s the servant’s entrance. The back alley where they throw out the trash.
He’s there, bruised and beaten and still cursing under his breath. His coat is torn, his tricorn lies squashed in a puddle. He’s a fool, yes, but a beautiful fool and you love him. I’m not here to meddle in matters of the heart.
Take me off, girl, or he won’t recognize you. Slip me back in your pocket.
“Domenico,” you say.
“Caterina.” His dark curls are dishevelled, his left eye is swelling. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have...”
“Hush, it’s all right.”
You kiss him and help him up. Together, you stumble towards the well-lit canal and wave to a gondoliere waiting in front of the palace.
“What are we going to do now?” He hangs his head in desperation as you step into the gondola.
“We’re going to run away,” you say calmly, as you sit down and nod to the gondoliere.
“The goddess of love is watching over us.” You smile and entwine your fingers with his. “It will be all right.”
“You are so brave.” He lifts your hands to his mouth and kisses them.
The sleek boat pushes away from the shining lights without a sound.
“Take us far away from here,” you whisper and reach for the last piece of treasure in the depths of your pocket—a little black mask, a scrap of silk and lace.
Slip me under the velvet cushion, girl.
You’re on your own now.