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Introduction:

A kiss before dying.
"The end of the enchantment was come and the Princess awoke, and she said: 'Is it you, my Prince? You have waited a long while...'"

-Charles Perrault, "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood"

***

1796

Elena woke. It was dark. She pushed on the lid of the coffin and it opened.

A single candle glowed on the table, and she saw that the crypt was empty except for herself and her casket. It was made of beautiful polished wood, and she spent a few minutes admiring its lines and running her fingers over it smooth surface. It was good to be buried in such a thing if one is dead, she decided.

Was she dead? She didn’t know. She couldn’t remember where she was, or how she got here, or anything at all before this moment. She didn’t even remember her own name until she read it on the little gold placard over the burial niche. It seemed she'd been buried, but then why was she alive again now?

The mystery didn‘t bother her that much, though. Finding a tiny silver bell on the table, she rang it, as much to hear its sound as to see what would happen. Two men answered. They were babyfaced, ruddy, and wearing waistcoats and stockings and short wigs. They were thick-lipped and very tall, and they both looked almost exactly alike.

She assumed these must be her servants. There was something very strange about them; they seemed distant and distracted, and their movements suggested they were not entirely aware of what they were doing. They seemed, she decided, like men who were walking in their sleep.

They presented her with clothes: a gown, a kirtle, a partlet, a sable fur, and perfumed gloves. Her shoes had gold fabric heels. All the materials felt smooth and lustrous. Delighted, she dressed. She felt no shame at dressing in front of these strange men. They barely seemed to know what was going on around them anyway.

Now, where was her looking glass? Seeing her puzzlement, one of the servants presented an oval hand mirror in a silver frame. But she found no reflection when she looked into it. She polished the mirror's surface with the hem of her shift, but an image refused to appear. How strange...

One of the red-faced men rang the little bell again, and in came a young woman, dressed exactly like Elena. They were the same height and build, and Elena supposed that their faces must look very much alike too. So she’s to be my looking glass, Elena thought!

Is this really what I look like, Elena wondered, touching the servant girl's cheek. The girl, like the two men, seemed not to be conscious of what was going on around her, like a somnambulist. Vaguely troubled, Elena finished dressing and left the girl and the coffin and the crypt behind.

The burial chamber turned out to be aboveground, and opened directly into the main house. She glimpsed the night sky and lanterns through some French doors in this hall and wondered what city this was. Running to the balcony and unlatching the doors she stepped out; the flickering light of a thousand, thousand lamps glowed in the city, and a river ran beneath the villa.

No, not a river, she realized: a canal. This was Venice. Even now, St. Mark's Square was flooding with the evening tide. Venice; she tasted the word without speaking it. It was good. Whoever she was and whatever was going on, at least she knew this place. She wasn't really lost at all.

She went back inside. Her serving man was waiting for her. He seemed to want to take her somewhere, so she followed him. She noticed, as they walked, that the house's interior was quite extravagant. I must be very rich, she thought. That was lucky.

They came to a sitting room, and there was another man here, but Elena guessed by the look of him that he wasn’t another servant. He was young and handsome, but though his clothes were fine they showed signs of having been worn a bit too long. He was standing at an easel, and was in the midst of cleaning his brushes. It took him a while to notice her.

"My lady," he said, after he finally looked up. He went to kiss her hand but she brushed past him without pause, sitting on a nearby chair with a high cushion. A fan rested on the table next to it, so she opened it., watching the painter out the corner of her eye. He looked flustered.

"How pleasing to see you again," the artist said. "Are you ready to continue?"

Elena fluttered the fan once in reply. The artist cleared his throat.

"I think we can finally finish tonight. You've been so generous to me that I wanted to work as quickly as I could without sacrificing the integrity of the...that is to say..." He seemed to grow distracted at her gaze, and his words trailed off. Elena pursed her lips. He blushed.

"Forgive me," the young man said. "Let's begin." And he picked up his brush and palette knife.

Elena watched him work. She had no idea what this man was doing in what she assumed to be her house, and no memory of having met him before, but it seemed she must have sat for this portrait before. The man--the boy, really--was fascinating to watch, so deep in concentration with his work. Elena reclined in the chair, letting the open fan dangle from her fingertips and affecting the smallest smile she could manage.

"You pose with remarkable grace, lady," he said. "Most find it difficult to keep so still."

He maneuvered his tools with ease, and he spoke with less hesitance when he painted.

"I painted a gentlewoman in Naples last year who couldn’t stop sneezing whenever we had a sitting. The portrait was a mess because there were hardly two consecutive minutes when her face wasn’t in some spasm, but do you know she said was completely pleased with it when it was finished?"

Elena went as if to laugh but produced no real sound. The artist seemed to be applying very heavy strokes, and the flush on his cheeks was now exertion rather than embarrassment. After some hours he paused to rest and, wiping his brow on a handkerchief, declared:

"It's done. ...or at least, I think it's done. Naturally only you can decide that." And he turned the easel around.

Elena saw a teenage girl with very large eyes, a small mouth, and curling hair. The couch, the fan, the daffodils on the table ("Yellow narcissus," she knew they were called) were represented in sharp lines, as was each fold of her dress.

And the face? It was beautiful...but she had no idea if looked like her or not.

Elena watched the portrait for many minutes, while the young artist sweated and fretted. Finally he said, "We can start over if you want. But I really believe this is some of my best work. You've inspired me in a way I've never felt before."

Elena reached out to touch the face of the painted girl, only remembering that the paint wasn‘t yet dry at the last second. The artist fiddled with a pen and cleared his throat again.. Finally, Elena closed her fan and turned her back on him. She heard him sag.

"I see. I...appreciate your patronage. I painted my best for you, but I know it‘s not good enough. I’ll go. Just give me a moment to collect--"

She turned around and caught him, slipping one arm around his waist and turning his face to hers with the other, leaning up for a long kiss that almost knocked him out of his shoes.

He went rigid as a statue, and she almost had to hold him up for fear that he'd topple over. Eventually, tentatively, he leaned in to return the kiss, and they stayed that way for a very long time. The serving man slipped away without making any noise.

Unbalanced, the artist fell backwards onto the couch, and Elena fell with him, ensnaring him with her limbs and trapping him with her body. Despite her small stature she was very strong, and when she pinned him against the cushions he was like a wriggling minnow.

Elena's mouth covered his, and her tongue stabbed into him again and again while she held him in her coils. She still couldn’t remember anything about this man or how they'd come to be together tonight, but she was quite suddenly taken with the desire to be close to his flesh…

Fabric tore and buttons flew as Elena pulled off his too-many-times mended shirt. Her pale fingers explored the lines of his naked chest, and he winced when she pressed on his ribs to feel the way they flexed when he breathed in and out.

"Please, not so rough..." he said, but she swallowed his words with another open-mouthed kiss.

She wanted very much to feel his skin on hers, so she tried to squeeze out of the confines of her own garments as fast as she could. Soon she lost her patience and simply tore her dress and undergarments off, the same way she had his shirt. Underneath it she was white and lithe. A dozen candelabras lit the room, and the orange glow danced on her immaculate flesh as she straddled the hapless painter.

Now this was a pretty piece of flesh; he had the soft body of a borghese but the rough hands of one who worked for a living. She nibbled his fingertips and stuck one into her mouth to taste him. He was young and tender. When she kissed his neck, her mouth happened across the throb of his jugular and she froze, mesmerized. Her lips were very sensitive, and the feeling of his pulse generated a curious sense of tension…

She held him down and covered his mouth while she slid onto the length of his cock and secured him inside of her. He moaned into her palm. Then, just to see what sound he would make next, she tipped one of the nearby candles so that hot wax drizzled onto his naked chest. He squirmed, but seemed to like it.

Elena licked the artist's body; he tasted like excitement and anticipation, but also faintly of dread. She rode him, and her mouth was on his neck again, and she could almost taste the hot throb of his heartbeat…

She wasn’t consciously aware of what she was doing at first. Only when there was so much blood that she couldn't help spilling some down the front of both of them did she realize that he was bleeding at all. The sticky hot drops smeared their writhing limbs as she rode on top of him. He seemed to be trying to say something, but Elena's teeth were in his throat and he couldn’t dislodge her.

She had only meant to try a little, but his blood tasted so raw and hot that she wanted more…

"Please, don't..." he said, choking, but that was all he managed. She sucked harder, and after a minute he was not struggling so much anymore. That was good.

She still rode him, and though his stamina flagged Elena was no less enthusiastic than before. The delicate curve of her posterior slapped up and down in his lap as her shoulders rose and fell like the gently lapping waters of the tide at St. Mark's.

They were a complete mess now, hot blood drenching their two bodies and the couch and the floor, sticky red droplets clinging to her hair and her nails. She began lapping spilled blood off his chest. His breathing was ragged. She squeezed as hard as she could, wringing him out, and she thought she felt something pop and break inside of him as the lightning jolt of an orgasm shot through her…

And then he stopped moving. Very soon, the dribble from his throat grew cold, and then it stopped. Licking her fingers, Elena thought that he was quite a sweet young man, in the end.

She rang the silver bell to summon her servants. They arrived with a heavy blanket and rolled the painter's body up in it, tying a cord about his feet and another around his neck and then hoisting him over their shoulders. They gathered up the artist's clothes and personal effects in a separate bundle.

The bloodstained couch seemed to give them pause, but then they moved it to one side of the room, apparently resigned to having to dispose of it, too. Almost as an afterthought, they took the portrait.

Elena (still nude, blood still covering her naked breasts and belly) followed them out of the sitting room. They went to a hall pantry with a trapdoor that opened onto a set of old stone stairs. Elena smelled brackish water and heard the tide lapping at the landing below. The men with the ruddy faces tied three stones to the body and dropped it into the water. It vanished into the abyss with barely a sound.

They burned the painter’s clothes, and anything that wouldn’t burn they broke into many pieces and likewise deposited into a canal. The only exception was the painting, which tone servant was about to cast into the water when Elena stopped him. She looked at the study, running her fingers over its surface (trailing blood wherever she touched it). She looked into the eyes of the painted girl and wondered, is this me? The coy woman on the canvas offered no answers. It was the face of a stranger who might as well not exist at all.

Elsewhere in the house, she found a closet full of portraits. Hundreds of them. They were all of the same girl, but no two really looked alike. No two really looked like her. She added the new one to the pile.

She wanted to see the city. In a private gondola steered by one of her sleepwalking servitors, she floated down the dark S of the Grand Canal. There were no stars out; the only light in the dark was Venice itself.

Imagine, she thought, a city on the water. Maybe Venice was a dream. Or was Venice dreaming her? Did the city sleep? Did it know she existed? Whatever the case, the gentle rocking of the little boat and the sound of oars in the water comforted her, like a lullaby.

Dawn was coming when they returned. She hurried inside and, too drowsy to stand on her own, allowed the men to carry her to her crypt. They laid her out in the polished wooden box and closed the lid. The crypt seemed like the darkest, most secret place in Venice, and Elena felt like she belonged. Within seconds, she slept.

***

1896

Elena woke. It was dark. She pushed on the lid of the coffin and it opened.

She remembered nothing before this moment. She explored the crypt, discovered her name, wondered at her whereabouts and, eventually, found the bell that summoned aid. Two men arrived, both short, with dark complexions and wide mustaches, dressed in trousers, vests, and shirts with high collars. They were almost identical, and they didn’t speak, sleepwalking through their chores.

Elena let them clothe her: a dress with a very wide skirt and a low neckline and short, puffed sleeves, with a wire frame holding it up. The color of the fabric was too bright to be natural; she couldn’t imagine where such colors came from. She searched in vain for her reflection in a mirror, watched a serving girl model identical clothes for her, and speculated about what resemblance they two might bear. Still she remembered nothing.

She left the crypt. She found the view of Venice from the balcony. The patterns of its canals and great old buildings comforted her. There was St. Mark's Square, flooded with the tide, and--

Wait. What was that building on the west side? Elena leaned over the railing to look at it. It was enormous! It was extraordinary! She didn’t remember it being there when...when what? What time was she remembering? How long had she slept? Why didn’t she know? Her heart shrank with horror. She went back inside, fingers trembling while they latched the door.

Dazed, she allowed herself to be taken to a sitting room. A man was waiting for her. He was very tall, with a black beard and dark spectacles that made it impossible to see his eyes. She wasn’t certain of his accent; German, maybe? The nearby trunks suggested he’d just arrived.

"My lady," he said, kissing her hand. "How pleasing to put a face to such a long correspondence. I hope you’re pleased to see me as well?"

She smiled in a way that didn’t show her teeth.

"I have everything prepared," the German said. "Shall we adjourn to the terrace?"

Outside, the dark, furtive scent of Venice--canal water and smoke--hung in the air. It seemed he meant to paint her, although why he would do such a thing here, in the pitch black, was beyond her. He made reference to something called a "card portrait" several times. He seemed to have no canvas, no easel, and no paints. Instead, he spent a great deal of time laboring over a contraption he unpacked, a box that stood on very tall legs.

"You've seen tintypes, no doubt?" he said. "The principle is the same. We treat the paper with egg whites, of all things. You'll find new photography much superior to the old, primitive daguerreotypes. And I have a new innovation to offer..."

Elena smiled so that he would keep talking.

"We can now capture an image in less than a single minute, with the help of this," the German said, holding up a strand of wire. "Magnesium. When it burns, it produces illumination as intense as daylight. An Englishman conceived of using it to light dark scenes like this, but I have done him one step better."

He produced a metal bowl, scorched on the bottom and filled with a foul-smelling mixture. "If we mix the wire shavings with gunpowder, we can fully illuminate even the darkest surroundings in an instant," he said.

Elena nodded, pondering the substance proffered. She almost daubed a finger in it, but it smelled of sulfur. The German prepared another contraption, a kind of lamp with a bowl full of his powders.

"No need to be concerned," he said. "I have been trained by one of the most accomplished chemists in Europe. The reaction will be small and controlled. But I warn you, it can be frightening to those who have not witnessed it before."

He kept talking, but Elena wasn’t listening. She noticed that the back of his lamp was a curved mirror. In it, she saw the terrace, the balcony railing, and the lights of the city, but not herself. Imagine, that a piece of polished glass could contain an entire city, but have no place for her. The German was lighting a fuse, but she was so fascinated with the mirror that she was only faintly aware of what was happening…

And then the world exploded. Blinding white madness, a crackle like lightning, a smell like burning Hell. Everything turned silver, and time stood still.

Then it was over. When the spots faded from Elena's eyes she realized that the German was dead, and that she was holding him by the throat. In the split second of the explosion she had sprinted across the terrace, knocked over the strange box, lifted the man off his feet, and broken his neck, all without even knowing what she was doing.

The sinews of her arms felt like taut wires. The German's head slumped, his dark spectacles askew, an expression of blank surprise frozen on his features, like a painted image. Slowly, she set him down. He crumpled.

Elena picked up the mirrored lamp and threw it off the balcony. The box on legs followed. She watched them both sink, and when she was satisfied that the black waters of Venice had consumed them both she went inside. She walked right past the sleepwalking servants as they prepared to dispose of the unfortunate artist, barely realizing they were there.

She spent time looking in the mirror. There was nothing to look at, but she looked anyway. Then she rang the bell and summoned the servant girl who had modeled her clothes. She cupped the girl's face in her hand and ran her fingers over her cheekbones and forehead and the profile of her nose and the curve of her chin. Do I look like this, she thought? Are all portraits so unsatisfying, or only the living ones?

Without thinking, she sank her teeth into the girl's neck. The girl screamed and, perhaps, woke from her stupor, but she didn’t resist. When she no longer had the strength to stand, Elena held her up. They embraced this way for a long time while Elena counted the beats of the girl's heart, feeling them come slower, and slower, and slower...

Finished, Elena let her fall. The wounded girl stirred, sluggish, as Elena stepped over her, both of their identical dresses now in bloody ruins. The two servant men seemed confused when they came on the scene, trying to revive the fallen girl. Elena didn't care.

She went to the outer balcony again. Venice greeted her, but it seemed strange now, like an old lover made indifferent by age. Not caring who saw, she stripped the bloody clothes off and threw them away. Did they float, or sink? She didn’t watch. She went inside. She went to the crypt. She slept. But her dreams gave her no peace.

***

1996

Elena pushed on the lid of the coffin and it opened.

The crypt was cold, bare metal on all sides. The lamp was bright white. The flame, encased in glass, didn’t flicker or make heat. Elena knew nothing and remembered nothing.

Men in foolish clothes she had never seen the likes of came in. The dress they gave her was so small it was barely there, and it clung to her figure in ways that shocked her. They covered her with jewels and brought her strange shoes that made her seem taller and were difficult to wear, and they daubed odd-smelling perfume onto her throat and breast.

She followed them into a house lit by unreal, heatless ghost lamps. She went to the balcony and realized she was in Venice, but it was a nightmare Venice of impossible buildings she didn’t know and blinding lights that sometimes flew through the air like stars fallen out of their spheres. Frightened, she went in and tried to lock the world out.

She followed the servants to a sitting room. A woman was waiting for her, a strange woman who wore trousers and shook Elena's hand as if they were men. She had with her a metal box with something like a glass eye in it, and something else that looked to Elena like a canvas, though it was of very thin substance, and was very wide.

"We have it," said the woman. "I suppose you want to see it now?"

The woman spoke...English, Elena thought. But it sounded only a little like the English she remembered.

Elena sat (the shape of the furniture in this room was the most bizarre thing yet). The woman put the canvas against one wall, and then she set her strange box on the table and attached flat things like wheels to the top of it. "Lights please?" she said.

A servant made the room go dark with a wave of his hand. The mysterious box's glass eye glowed and, to Elena's alarm, phantoms appeared, glowing silver figures of light on the canvas. The entire city of Venice was there on the wall; the old Venice, as she thought it should look. She recognized the clothing and the buildings and the old gondolas. Was this woman a sorceress, who had trapped the real Venice in her magic box and replaced it with the apparition outside?

Gradually, Elena gathered that she was seeing some kind of play, and these people merely actors (though what magic art was causing them to manifest in the room she didn‘t know.) She began to piece together the meaning of the story: A wealthy Venetian girl, the most beautiful in the world, was put under a spell by her jealous godmother, so that she would sleep forever, waking only at night, and even then as a monster.

The spell could only be broken when the girl saw her own image. But this proved impossible, since the wicked godmother stole the girl’s reflection as well (a cruel trick to play on one whose beauty had captivated so many). Great artists came to paint her portrait in hopes that they might break the spell, but each failed.

The sleeping girl never changed: She was a shadow and a shape and the reflection of nothing, illustrated in silver light before Elena's eyes, real and not real at the same time. She was nothing but a face…

Elena's hand darted out, touching the button on the side of the box. The phantoms disappeared. She stood, pacing the room, heart racing. The lights came on again. The strange woman looked at her.

"What's wrong?"

Elena wasn’t sure. She walked to the screen and touched it, checking for any impressions that the moving pictures might have left behind. Everything had been real; she had seen it all with her own eyes. But now it was as if it had never existed. What kind of portraits were these that were as fleeting as the light of day?

The strange woman sat on the couch, drinking something from a flat metal bottle. “You don’t like it,” she said. “We tailored the script to your specifications. What did we get wrong?”

Elena said nothing. She sat. She put her hand on the woman's knee. The woman sat up a little and looked at Elena from the edge of her eye, obviously unsure what to think. Elena sat a little closer and, leaning down, she kissed the woman's wrist, letting the tip of her tongue tickle the sensitive skin there. The woman made an "oomph" sound, and Elena did it again. She could very nearly taste the hot blood pulsing through the veins beneath her mouth, but she didn’t bite down.

Instead she kissed her way up the arm and, soon, across the rounded shoulder, pushing the strange, short-sleeved man's shirt out of the way. The woman tasted like curiosity, gratification, intrigue, and secrets. Very good.

The strange woman pushed back for a second. "Lady," she said. "are you on something? Because you are damn spooky."

Elena brushed her lips over the other woman's in answer. She strained away a little but did not get up and leave.

"You're my client," she said. "I don't need hassle like this." A few more teasing kisses reeled her in, though, and soon she kissed back.

Both women rolled over on the couch, first Elena on top, then the stranger, then back again. Clothes slid off so easily it was like they were barely there to begin with. The smell of Elena's perfumed body mingled the woman's own natural smell. Her skin was hard and tanned next to Elena's delicate pallor, and she kissed roughly. Though she looked soft and womanish she felt strong, and the two of them fell on and over each other and twisted around in tight embraces and breathed each other in while outside the long, hot, Venice night stretched out like a dark mirror outside.

Elena kissed the other woman to keep her from talking. Words were mysteries that scared her. Touch was the only thing that worked the way it should anymore. The couch was slick leather, cool against her own cool body. The witch lights that lit this midnight world seemed harsh, but in that otherwordly halo their bodies glowed with a light of their own. Elena crushing her small breasts against her lover's and rocked back and forth with naked thighs clasped. They fitted together perfectly.

Elena listened to the rush of blood in the woman's veins. Her tongue flickered over her sharp teeth. The woman kissed her way across Elena's thighs. Her mouth was softer than velvet. Elena watched the telltale throb in her neck and wondered how it might taste, mouth watering

The woman was licking at her now. It was a pleasantly distracting stimulation, but even with the woman's face buried between Elena's thighs her attention couldn't wander for long away from the steady beat of the pulse. The more excited the woman became, the faster and harder the blood beat through her. Elena ran her nails up and down the woman's back while her open mouth massaged Elena's sex. She pressed hard enough to break the skin, and her hand came up with one bright scarlet drop clinging to the tip of a nail. The taste of it danced across her tongue.

Eager for more, she scratched again, and the woman cried out, sitting up and backing away. "What the hell?" she said. She touched the scratches tenderly. "You don't have to get so--“

But before she could say anything else Elena caught her again, lips parted, teeth poised just above the soft hollow of the other woman’s throat. And then...

She noticed the blank screen on the other side of the room, flapping a little in an otherwise undetectable breeze. A faint nagging sense settled on her. She turned away from her lover, all but dropping her. The other woman staggered and caught her own balance. “Hey?!“ she said.

Elena examined the strange box on the table more closely. She was convinced now that it wasn’t really magic, though what it was instead she couldn't say. It made a whirring sound, and the wheels on top sprang into motion when she pressed the button, and the ghostly figures appeared again on the wall.

The girl on the screen was a graceful phantom in a world of silver and black. She floated down dark corridors and wept into the canals, forgotten and alone. At the play's end she stood on a balcony as the sun rose over Venice and then--Elena blinked, dazzled by the image of the dawn--she seemed to catch fire in the sunlight, burning away and leaving the face of the sun as the only thing on the screen, a white disc against a sea of silver.

Captivated, Elena walked to where the image of the sun met the wall. She expected it to be hot when she touched it, but it wasn't. The light filled up her eyes.

"Is it real?" she said.

The strange woman looked up. She‘d put half of her clothes back on and returned to her bottle, sulking. Elena turned to her, the light from the magic box shining right into her face.

"Is it real?" she said again.

The woman blinked. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"This--this--painting with light," Elena said. “Is it a real thing? Is that really the sun?”

The woman blinked, dumbfounded. "You are the strangest fucking person I have ever met," she said.

Elena reached for the image of the sun on the wall. "It is real," she said. "I can feel it. It's almost warm. Can't you feel it too? It's like...a kiss."

The strange woman cried out. "What's happening? You're--?"

Elena was on fire. Her hand on the screen was lined in white flames, and smoke rose in curls from her arms and shoulders. Her hair was burning. But it didn't hurt. In fact, she liked it. She felt the warmth of the sunlight. It was better than real. It was more perfect than any painting, more lasting and true than any portrait she’d ever seen. She threw her arms open, as if she could gather the sun up in them, and when she did--

Quietly, she crumbled away, burning in the false sunlight until there was nothing left. The film ended and the projector snapped off. The producer was alone in the dark penthouse. Try as she might, she couldn’t find it in herself to scream.

She didn’t understand what had happened. She didn’t know what she had just seen. In a few years, she would convince herself that this was all a dream, and that her entire time in Venice was nothing but a kind of waking sleep.

In the morning, a servant scattered Elena’s ashes over the canal. They mingled with the waters of Venice, and perhaps they are part of it still.

***

"Death makes men weep, and yet a third of life is passed in sleep."

-Lord Byron

1 comments

danny_hReport

2014-07-21 15:25:53
I very much enjoyed that, really well told and highly inventive..

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