Artwork by Sara Strachan
Written Response by Gretel Mann
She dips the brush in the paint, delicately traces, brushes, blends, and shades the colour upon the wood. They watch her, desperately waiting for the next dip, the next swirl, the next shadow to spill from her hand and soak into the mask. She feels their eyes at every moment. From somewhere behind beaked noses and craggy brows, they see all she does.
She tires too quickly these days. Once she could work all day, and then spend the evenings on the Palazzo, dancing and laughing until the sun rose.
Her walk to the workshop is enough now. The alleys twist around her until she hides in doorways, waiting for someone to pass her so she can follow them through the maze. Soft-footed, she scurries behind them until they emerge onto the wide, grey Palazzo. Sometimes they go to the Rialto, where the fishwives hawk their wares in vulgar tones, and she knows she must enter the alleys again and hope that this time she will find her way.
At her door she is greeted by sequins and glory; bright, sensuous, beckoning feathers. With her fingertips she caresses them, and finds warmth and friendship as she does. There are five of these masks left now; they are popular with Venetian women, but she has not created with such humour in some time.
Past the bright doorway, she hesitates and enters the gloom. Somehow the light is drawn away. Somehow it is found in the lustre of varnish and a deep gleam within the grain, but the shadows are deep. The shadows are hers.
Her hands are covered in a thousand tiny scars. Always one or another breaks open. A drop here, a drop there – blood, or sweat, or a tear will fall into her work.
Her heart aches each time a mask is sold. Strange men choose a new face, pay their coin, and leave. She wonders if she will know them if she passes them at Carnivale.
She finishes early tonight. She has promised to try – to sit at one of a hundred tables in the Palazzo, to join the throngs, drinking wine and dancing with strange neighbours. She must choose: gaunt cheeks, slashing cheekbones, graven foreheads all dare her to pick them. They will fit – they always do, no matter who they wear or are worn by. She closes her eyes, and reaches out.
The mask slips over her face, sliding to rest upon her cheekbones. Moonlight gleams as she steps onto the Palazzo. Music plays and she is drawn into the crowds.
Her hand is taken. The face is one she knows, one she carved one chill winter day. She is pulled close, until the beaked nose juts past her ear and she cannot see the eyes behind. She forgets to breathe, and can only feel – hard hands, a firm body, the cobbles beneath her feet as they dance.
Her head spins. The stars above are dimmed. She is whirled, and always the faces she sees are hers. If she touched them she would know them as she knows her own body. When they speak she thinks that whispering along with them she can hear her own thoughts.
The moon is hidden behind the Doge’s Palace. The remaining lights flicker, flames that lick around the porches and create dungeons of the shadows. Her body throbs, but still she dances from one face to another. They laugh, and now their laughter has come from the terror of the hours past midnight, when demons war across the skies and angels fall. She thinks she must always dance, and wonders what she will be when dawn breaks.