"Death makes men weep, and yet a third of life is passed in sleep."
"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"
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 admired its lines and ran 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 did not know. She could not remember where she was, or how she got here, or anything at all before this moment. She did not 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 she must be alive again now. But she was not bothered by this mystery. 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 came in. They were babyfaced, ruddy, and wearing waistcoats and stockings and short wigs on their heads. They were thick-lipped and very tall, and they both looked almost exactly alike. She assumed they must be her servants, and when they bowed she decided she was correct. There was something very strange about them, though; 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 sensuous in her hands. Delighted, she began to put them on. She felt no shame at dressing in front of these strange men. They barely seemed barely to know what was going on around them anyway.
A thought struck her while dressing: Where was her looking glass? Seeing her puzzlement, one of the servants presented an oval hand mirror in a silver frame. But when she looked into it she found that she had no reflection. She polished the mirror's surface with the hem of her shift, but an image refused to appear. Troubled, she set it down.
One of the red-faced men rang the little bell again and in came a young woman, dressed in a shift almost exactly like Elena's and bearing clothes identical to the ones she had been presented. As one man helped Elena into her gown his counterpart helped dress the girl, and when they were both done the girl faced Elena and modeled the clothes for her. So she is to be my looking glass, Elena thought. They were of the same height and build, and Elena supposed that they must have searched for someone with a face very much like her own. But is this really what I look like, Elena wondered? She touched the servant girl's cheek but the girl, like the two men, seemed not to be conscious of what was going on around her, like a somnambulist. Vaguely troubled in a way she had no words for, Elena left the girl and the coffin and the crypt.
The burial chamber turned out to be aboveground and opened directly into the main house. She was not sure why she slept in a tomb instead of a bedroom and in a coffin rather than on a bed, but if there were reasons she was confident they would present themselves. To her everything seemed dreamlike and only barely real. Nothing could surprise her. Surely everything was as it should be, however that was?
She glimpsed the night sky through some French doors in this hall and wondered what place this estate was built in. Running to the balcony and unlatching the doors she stepped out; the flickering light of a thousand, thousand lanterns glowed in the city below, and a river ran beneath the villa. No, not a river: a canal. This was Venice. Even now St. Mark's Square was flooding with the evening tide across the way. 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 in. 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. She supposed she must be very wealthy. 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 was not 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 some moments 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 rapt was he 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. The young artist seemed to spend a long time looking at her before he started working. She paid it no mind.
"You pose with remarkable grace, lady," he said after he had been working for a while. "Most find it difficult to keep so still."
He maneuvered his tools with ease, and he spoke with less hesitance when he worked. "I painted a gentlewoman in Naples last year who could not stop sneezing whenever we had a sitting. The portrait was a mess because there were hardly two consecutive minutes when her face was not contorted 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 about his cheeks was now a matter of exertion rather than embarrassment. After some hours he paused to rest his sore wrists and elbows 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 it was hers.
Elena looked at the portrait for many minutes while the young artist sweated and fretted. Finally he said, "As I said, everything remains subject to your approval. We can, if you like, begin completely anew. But I really believe this is some of my best work to date. You've inspired me in a way I've never felt before."
Elena reached out, as if to touch the face of the painted girl, only remembering to stop when the fumes reminded her the work still had not dried. The artist anxiously fiddled with a pen. He cleared his throat again.
"By the way, lady, do you know they tell a story about you in the city?"
She quirked an eyebrow.
"There is a rumor that you've agreed to marry only whomever can paint the perfect portrait of you." He laughed, too loudly. "A silly idea, isn't it? Like a fairy tale. And yet, I find it charming. If it's not too bold to say so..."
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'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 in embarrassed surprise. 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 young 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 could not remember anything about this man or how they'd come to be together tonight, but she was quite suddenly taken with a heated 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 the words were swallowed up in 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. He went as if to assist but 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. The room was lit by a dozen candelabras and the light of the orange flames danced on her immaculate flesh as she straddled the hapless painter and squeezed his naked body with her legs.
Now this was a pretty piece of flesh; he had the soft, pliable body of a borghese but the calloused 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 pulse of his jugular and she froze, mesmerized. Her lips were very sensitive, and the throb of blood just beneath the surface created a curious and singular tension that went all the way through her...
She held him down and covered his mouth with one hand while she slid her sex onto the length of his cock, securing him inside of her. He moaned into her palm. Then, just to see what sound he would make, she took one of the nearby candles and tipped it so that the hot wax drizzle his naked chest. He squirmed, but did not seem to entirely dislike the sensation.
Elena licked the artist's body; he tasted like excitement and anxiety and anticipation and, faintly, of dread. It was a potent mix and she became lightheaded, as if drunk on very strong wine. She was riding him and he was pressed against her and her mouth was on his neck again and the tiny, hot throb of his heartbeat was something she could almost taste...
She was not 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 across 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, though he struggled, he could not dislodge her. She had only meant to try a little, but the taste of him was so raw and hot that she wanted more.
"Please, don't..." he said, choking, but that was all he managed. Pressing her mouth against his body she sucked harder and after a minute he was not struggling so much anymore. That was good.
Meanwhile she still rode him, and though his stamina seemed to be flagging Elena was no less enthusiastic in her own lovemaking than before. The delicate curve of her posterior slapped up and down in his lap as the slope of her shoulders rose and fell like the gently lapping waters of the Great Canal or the tide washing in and out of St. Mark's.
They were a complete mess now, hot blood overflowing her mouth and drenching their two bodies and the couch and the floor, sticky red droplets clinging to her hair and her congealing under her nails. The heat soothed her. She began lapping spilled blood off his chest. His breathing was ragged. He was pale. She squeezed as hard as she could, wringing him out, and she thought she felt something pop and break inside of him and the lightning jolt of a tiny orgasmic rush shot through her, and then he stopped moving at all and, very soon, the dribble from his throat grew cold, and then stopped.
Licking her fingers, Elena thought that he was, after all, quite a sweet young man in the end.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her arm and rang the little silver bell to summon her servants. They arrived with a heavy blanket that they spread on the floor, rolling the painter's body off the couch and wrapping it up, tying a cord about its feet and another about its neck and then hoisting it over their shoulders. It reminded Elena of experienced huntsmen handling a felled stag.
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 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. As she watched, the men with the ruddy faces tied three stones to the body and dropped it into the water. It vanished into the abyss.
The painter's clothes were burned, and anything that would not burn were broken into many pieces and likewise deposited into a canal. The only exception was the painting, which the servant was about to cast into the water when Elena stopped him. She looked at the study, running her fingers over its surface (red marks trailing 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.
The waters of Venice flowed on and the tides washed in and out. When Elena threw the painting into the canal she felt good knowing that the waters would soon erase every mark on it, leaving it as blank as her looking glass.
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 that night; the only light in the dark was Venice itself. Imagine, she thought, a city on the water. It did not seem real. Perhaps 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 herself to be carried to her crypt. They laid her out in the polished wooden box and closed the lid, and the crypt seemed like the darkest, most secret place in Venice. Elena slept.
Elena woke. It was dark. She pushed on the lid of the coffin and it opened.
She remembered nothing from 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 did not speak, sleepwalkers who knew not what they did.
Elena allowed them to 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 could not conceive of where such colors came from. She searched in vain for her reflection, watched a serving girl model identical clothes for her, and speculated about what resemblance they two might bear. Still she remembered nothing from before.
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! Who had built it? She did not remember it being there when...when what? What time and age was she remembering? How long had she slept? Why did she not know? Her heart shrank with horror. She went back inside, stumbling, her 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 was not certain of his accent; German, perhaps? The nearby trunks suggested he had just arrived.
"My lady," he said, kissing her hand. "How pleasing to put a face to such a long correspondence. I hope you are pleased to see me as well?"
She smiled in a way that did not show her teeth..
"I have everything prepared," the German said. "Perhaps we should adjourn to the terrace?"
Confused but presuming from his tone that she ought to already know why such a suggestion was ideal, she led him (or, more precisely, she followed her servant, as she had no memory of the layout of the house) to an outer terrace, where the dark, furtive scent of Venice--canal water and smoke--hung in the air. It seemed he meant to paint her portrait, though 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. Rather, 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 very much the same. We treat the paper with egg whites, of all things. You'll find that the image is much superior to the old, primitive daguerreotypes. And, as promised, I have a new innovation to offer..."
Elena smiled again, 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 held up a strand of wire. "Magnesium," he said. "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 was not 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 she had no reflection at all. Imagine, that a piece of polished glass could contain within it an entire city but have no place in it for me, she thought. The German was saying something, but she was not listening. He was, she was aware, lighting a fuse, but she was so rapt in the curved, distorted image in the back of the mirror that she was only faintly aware of anything else--
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 she was holding the German by the throat, and that he was dead. In the split second during 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. Her body was taut; the sinews of her arms felt like strung wires. The German's head slumped to one side, 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 past the sleepwalking servants as they prepared to dispose of the unfortunate artist, but she was barely aware of their existence.
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? Is this all I am? Are all portraits so unsatisfying, or only the living ones?
Anger welled up inside Elena and, without thinking, she sank her teeth into the girl's neck. The girl screamed and, perhaps, wakened from her stupor, but did not resist. She submitted meekly until she no longer had the strength to stand, and then Elena held her up. They embraced in 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 male servants seemed confused when they came on the scene, but as Elena left they went to retrieve the supine form of the fallen girl and perhaps try to revive her. Elena didn't care.
She went to the outer balcony again. Venice was waiting for 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 did not watch.
She went inside. She went to the crypt. She slept. But her dreams gave her no peace.
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, did not flicker or make heat. Witch's fire. Elena knew nothing and remembered nothing.
Men in foolish clothes she had never seen the likes of came to her. The dress they gave her was black and 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 liquids from tiny bottles onto her throat and breast.
She followed them into a house lit by unreal, heatless flames, ghost lamps that hung from everything. She came to the balcony and realized she was in Venice, but it was a nightmare Venice of impossible buildings she did not know and blinding white lights that moved even as she watched them and sometimes flew through the air like stars fallen out of their spheres, ghastly apparitions that could not and should not be. Frightened, she turned away and tried to lock the world out.
She followed the servants to a sitting room. A woman was waiting for her, a woman who wore trousers and shook Elena's hand as if they were men. She had with her a strange 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 strange 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. "It's been sitting in a vault since 1922. Probably the only copy left in the world. We spent a lot on the restoration, but...well, we're not miracle workers. Lights please?"
The 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, not just people but the entire city of Venice, 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? Elena stayed stark still out of fear.
Gradually, Elena gathered that what was happening before her was a manner of play, and these people merely actors, though what magic art was causing them to manifest in the room she could not hazard. Words in curious Italian appeared, saying that this story (related a myth peculiar to Venice. 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 for a few days every a hundred years, 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 her reflection as well (a cruel trick to play on one whose beauty had captivated so many).
The girl slept and slept, and aged not a day, though her parents grew stooped and grey and eventually died, and she was tended by men and women lured to her in dreams by the power of the curse. Great artists were brought by subterfuge to paint her portrait in hopes that they might break the spell, but each of these suitors failed to undo the enchantment and found a watery grave beneath the villa. 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.
Finally, one day--
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.
Elena was not 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 images 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. Elena realized that she had probably had a lot to drink already. Her strange dialect had at first disguised the faint slurring of her syllables.
"I did warn your office that the restoration would be difficult. Honestly, it's amazing we have anything at all."
Elena sat. She took the small bottle from the woman and 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 did not bite down. Instead she kissed her way up the arm and, soon, across the rounded shoulder while 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 and then, eventually, 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 strangely perfumed body mingled and clashed with the scent of 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 one another in tight embraces and breathed each other in while outside the long, hot, Venice night stretched out like a dark mirror, its chorus of nightmare machines noises and washing tides playing on.
The woman broke away again, to catch her breath. "Wait a minute," she said. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
Elena swallowed the words with another kiss and pulled the woman on top of her. She didn't want words. Words were mysteries she was afraid of. Touch was the only thing that worked the way she thought it should anymore. The couch was slick leather, the hide cool against her own cool body. The witch lights that lit this midnight world were so harsh she needed only the dimmest reflection of them to see by, but in that otherwordly halo their two bodies seemed to glow with a light of their own. Elena crushing her small breasts against her lover's and rocked back and forth with naked thighs clasped so that there was scarcely an inch between them. They fitted together perfectly. Elena closed her eyes and listened to the rush of blood in the woman's veins, imagining the hot, sensual pulse of it. Her own tongue flickered over her sharp teeth.
The woman kissed across Elena's thighs. Elena spread her legs wider apart. Her whole body felt like magnificent silk and the woman's mouth was softer velvet. She thought about how strange and silly these clothes they'd worn were; they were so close to nakedness even while dressed that there was really no difference. She watched the telltale throb in the woman's neck as the woman licked and thought about how it might taste. Elena's mouth watered.
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 body and the more vividly Elena could see, feel, hear and--almost--taste it. She ran her nails up and down the woman's back while her open mouth massaged Elena's sex. Elena 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--so...ohh. I don't feel so good."
She seemed to wobble and Elena almost went as if to catch her but instead let her slump against the arm of the couch. Her eyes moved behind closed lids and the smell of pungent alcohol fumes rose off her. Definitely too much to drink, Elena thought. She leaned over the unconscious woman, lips parted, teeth poised just above the soft hollow of her 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. Leaving the sleeping woman, Elena examined the strange box on the table more closely. She was convinced now that it was not 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. Curious, she sat on the floor to watch the end of the play.
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 waters of the canals, forgotten and alone, a shadow on empty walls. 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 into tatters that were blown apart in the wind 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 was not. The light filled up her eyes.
"Is it real?" she said.
The strange woman woke. Elena turned to her and the light streaming from the magic box shone in 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? Does it exist?
Dumbfounded, the woman reached for the bottle and drank what was left. "You are the strangest fucking woman I have ever met," she said. But Elena was not paying attention. She was reaching for the image of the sun on the wall and watching her silhouette appear in the heart of it.
"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 looked at her, uncomprehending, and then 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 image she had 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 but ashes and a few curls of smoke. The film ended and the projector snapped off, and the producer was left alone in the dark penthouse. Try as she might, she could not find it in herself to scream.
She did not understand what had happened. She did not know what it was she had seen. It all felt like a dream. In a few years she would convince herself that it really was, and that her entire time in Venice was nothing but a kind of waking sleep.
In the morning, a servant scattered the ashes over a canal. They mingled with the waters of Venice, and perhaps they are part of it still.
Note: If you enjoyed this story, read its sister story, "The Vampire of Prague":