I’ve been trying to get back into the habit of writing. I miss it, and I need it. So, in November I jumped in head first and entered The Inlander’s Short Story Contest. This year’s theme was “Bridges”, and the rules were simple: be bold, be creative, and keep it under 2,000 words. Easy enough.
The winning stories were released today, and like a wishful 7 year-old whose Christmas list is full of ponies and a North Face Fleece in every color, the only thing I wanted for Christmas was to win. Santa brought me a Sonicare toothbrush instead. So, no. I didn’t win or even come close really, but that’s okay. It’s what I expected. Frankly, I’m out of practice and was up against some stiff competition – you know, like, published authors and the bookworms who teach people like me how to write short stories. And while I think participation ribbons are for losers, I’m going to give myself one anyway for submitting a story in the first place (yay me!).
Now I’m waving that ugly, green ribbon high and posting my story on the blog for all to see. Enjoy!
Like an army of jesters, a million sunflowers danced under the bright Italian sky on either side of the railcar. Yet as the wheels surged over the track, the grins on their blurred, round faces only seemed to mock her consciousness. Unamused, she succumbed to exhaustion and shut her eyes. Her sleep was deep and impenetrable as she dreamt of the same familiar green eyes that had occupied her mind every night since she left the city.
A pleasant, computer-generated voice announced the train’s arrival, first in Italian, then in English. It was the final stop: Venezia. Venice. Disoriented upon return from her dream, she obeyed the woman in the speaker and clumsily collected her belongings—a bottle of overpriced bottled water, a small, navy duffle, and a knockoff Fendi handbag, her feeble attempt to look like she belonged. She shuffled with strangers in their expensive leather loafers to the station exit, where they all scattered in Babel-like confusion.
Outside the station, the sun had already crept beneath the horizon, hiding the archipelago of sinking buildings that stood before her. Glowing orbs atop lampposts illuminated the platform and cast long shadows onto the black water of the Grand Canal. Too tired and too impatient to wait for the vaparetto, she would have to navigate the labyrinth of footbridges in the dark.
Foundations moaned in agony at their slow decay as she made her way through the lagoon. Intricate masks beautiful in the daylight, emerged as phantoms in the night, watching her with soulless eyes from window shops on every corner. Her heart raced as a pride of Venetian lion statues stalked her path. But even in her weary delirium, she did not miss a turn. She’d been here many times before; his door her beacon.
At the end of a damp, cobbled alleyway she finally arrived. She paused at the massive wood door, its panels warped and its paint etched from the thick, salt air. She filled her lungs. Here, another lion—the door knocker—defended the entrance like a gargoyle. No stranger to this place, she let herself in.
No one was home, just as she’d expected. She fumbled into the bedroom and flicked the light on. Every dim lit detail was as she remembered it. Photos of the two of them cluttered the nightstand, but she didn’t recognize the girl in the photos; that girl was happy. She dropped her things on the tile floor and shut off the light to expel the stranger in the picture frame. Now, came the onslaught of emotion and exhaustion, patient predators that had been preying on her all day. They attacked her in tandem, and she crumpled onto the empty mattress. Sleep was not far behind.
Her eyelids lifted reluctantly as light trickled in between the curtains. She could hear the tide lapping at the walls outside the window. She’d been anticipating—and dreading— this day.
Outside, the air was electric, and it hummed along with the motorboats weaving through the canals. Gondoliers bellowed deeper, and their passengers kissed harder. Even the beggars were mirthful. This day was the first day of Carnevale.
Carnevale symbolized a time of reckless abandon. Music and dancing joined hands to fill palace courtyards, plazas, and small squares. Celebrations carried on late into the night and out into the water. Instead of the Adriatic, color flooded the streets.
Putting on their masks, people were invisible—no transgression impermissible and no fruit forbidden. Who existed behind the paper face was of no consequence, the anonymity empowering. The poor rubbed shoulders with the prosperous; the gamblers squandered their fortunes; and the fools took risks on business and love.
She scolded her own foolishness as she wandered toward the city’s core, Piazza San Marco. The square was a sea of glittery masks with waves of vibrant fabric crashing all around, taking her mind back to her first visit to Venice… the last map dot on a monthlong tour of Italy and an exclamation point to her most cherished chapter. Errant in her youth, she was on a journey of self-discovery. She found him instead.
He came from a family of mascherari. Carnevale was their livelihood, and each year he handcrafted his own mask. His stood out in the parade of faces, and she only wanted to take his photo—another lion, this one gold with emerald eyes. A single snapshot multiplied into a thousand. She had an entire album documenting the fantasy that ensued. The revelry, the romance. They were the reason she fell in love with the city. And the reason she fell in love with him.
For three years, she crossed oceans and footbridges to be close to him, but time had eroded the walls of the city and her heart. As if to remind her of the minutes she’d lost trying to reach him, the bells in St. Mark’s Campanile began to toll.
There, in the kaleidoscope of costumes, was her Venetian lion. The gold of his mask had lost its luster, and the green of his eyes only glistened in her dreams. She struggled through the crowd toward him. Finally close enough to touch, she repeated their very first encounter and asked if she could take a picture. The vision of her surprised him; she wasn’t supposed to be there for another few days.
Grasping the hook of his elbow, she pulled him through the swarm of tourists to a quiet corner of the maze where she tore off his mask. They were alone and face-to-face for the first time in months, but there was only silence.
She forced a small object into his palm and closed his fingers around it. Their lips pressed together—a long, soft kiss that communicated everything. She turned away and walked toward the train station. By the time he looked down to see his grandmother’s ring, she had already crossed the Grand Canal for the last time, leaving her love behind to drown with the city.