The Mime
by Laury A. Egan

 

While sipping a murky espresso at a wine bar, Leah surveyed the crowd of men standing, smoking, and reading newspapers and felt unbearably American. Excusing herself, she edged past two arguing tradesmen to a place by the open door where she could study the elegant Venetian women walking by on their way to work. Leah observed their clothes, jewelry, and hairstyles. Why didn’t the skirt and sexy blouse she’d purchased yesterday make her look more chic? Or disguise her nationality? But to her chagrin, just a minute ago, the waiter had returned her “buon giorno” with “good morning.” They always did.

Leah watched as the sun rose higher, its rays illuminating the myriad detours of the calli and flooding over street stalls, shops, and pedestrians. Across the campo, vendors were hawking brightly colored scarves, blown-glass pens, feathered carnival masks, blue fans printed with Venetian scenes, and purple velvet jester caps festooned with gold balls. The tourists were buying this kitsch, but she wasn’t tempted. Leah wanted something else, though she didn’t know what.

She finished her coffee, stepped outside, and plunged into the human swarm wending toward the Rialto Bridge. On Largo Mazzini, a street running perpendicular to the Grand Canal, she avoided a wooden cart by backing up against a building. As she did so, Leah noticed a mime across the street. He was standing on a box, one arm raised, one arm lowered. Every inch of him was molten gold, as if he had been dipped in a vat and placed in position to dry. From the cloak with the padded high collar surrounding his neck, to his face, hands, feet, hair, sandals, and the tightly rolled scarf around his forehead, the mime glistened. Leah stared at his perfect mouth, which was tucked with amusement at the corners; at his ears, neat and swept back like his cheekbones; and at his large blue eyes fixed on some point in space.

The mime was the most radiant being she’d ever seen. Leah elbowed through the tourists until she stood before him, below the level of his vision. A gold top hat lay at his feet, upturned for donations. She rooted around in her wallet and placed a generous contribution inside. He swiveled slowly toward her, leaned down, and placed a gold hand over his heart, tapping his chest twice. For the briefest instant, his eyes met hers and sparkled with astonishing intensity. He froze for half a minute before returning to his position, arms extended.

Leah was mesmerized. The golden body was carved sculpture, blessed with the serenity of inanimateness, yet standing near him, she felt waves of magnetism pulling her forward. If only she could touch the mime, could create a connection that would transfuse his joy into her. In some inexplicable way, Leah craved him.

Intruding upon her reverie, an American family bustled toward the mime, loudly exclaiming and trying to engage him in conversation. The father wore a scarlet Dr. Seuss hat, the mother a black tee shirt painted with a gondola that stretched precipitously across her breasts. The daughter dripped chocolate gelati down her chin.

Ashamed to be associated with these American tourists and embarrassed about her fascination with the mime, Leah turned and rejoined the flow of people, glancing back at him once to rekindle the dissipating energy. On the other side of the bridge, she ambled through the market and bought a peach to erase her hunger, although she suspected her hunger wouldn’t be appeased by food. She passed two men paring hearts from artichokes; green leaves filled the barrel that sat between them. She wandered into the Pescheria and admired the red mullet, silver bream, green crabs, and wriggling black eels in the tilted, glistening boxes of ice. Not for the first time, she wished she were staying in an apartment with a kitchen rather than in a hotel. It would be so pleasant to fill a string bag with purchases and go home to cook a delicious dinner, but she was here for only four days, an add-on to last week’s architectural workshop in Florence that she had attended as a replacement for a senior colleague. On the next visit she would stay longer, Leah promised herself, when she had another week of vacation from her tedious drafting job in Sewickley, a position that had once seemed exotic compared to those offered in Altoona, her hometown. Now all she wanted was to shed her boring life like too-tight skin.

Crossing the bridge back to the San Marco sestiere, Leah felt a flutter of anticipation, hoping the mime would still be there. She quickened her step, frustrated with the sluggish tide of humanity. Finally, she turned down the street and peered over the bouncing heads. Where was he?

Gone. Disappointment washed over her.

Then she wondered if mimes moved locations. A wild impulse to search for him possessed her. The piazza. She had seen other mimes there. In a rush, annoyed with the hordes of pokey men and women who stopped to peer in shop windows, she fought her way to the northern entrance of the square. Scanning the vast panoply of people and pigeons, with little flames of hope warming her, Leah looked in front of the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the outdoor cafés, and along the Riva degli Schiavoni. No mimes.

The midday sun was oppressive. Leah, feeling hot and adolescently foolish, returned to her hotel near Campo San Angelo and lay down in the shuttered room.

__

Later that afternoon, she asked the concierge to order a ticket for the evening performance by I Musici Veneziana, a group of musicians who played works by Vivaldi at the Scuolo Grande de San Teodoro. She dressed in a white skirt and sleeveless blouse, brushed her hair with care, added crimson lipstick—a brilliant shade she’d never dared wear before—and set out for a restaurant.

After a seafood pizza and a half carafe of wine, Leah walked toward the hall, drawn not only to her destination but also to the street past it. As she turned the corner, in the gathering shadows, she saw the gold mime on his box, bowing to a couple standing in front of his hat. Suddenly, she felt jealous, proprietary. Without hesitation, she positioned herself where he could see her. As he straightened up, his glance met hers. Had he smiled or was it a trick of the fading light? She stood as still as he did, sensing a transference between them: his blue eyes to her blue eyes.         

When the couple continued on, she came closer to the mime, unsure what to say. They stood in silence, his gaze fixed somewhere above her head.

“My name is Leah,” she whispered, as if it were a sacrilege to speak with a mime.

He turned slightly and cupped his right hand to his ear.

“Do you speak English?” she asked. He gave a tiny nod that she interpreted as encouragement. “I have a concert in a few minutes. Do you want to have a glass of wine with me afterward?”

The mime didn’t move. Leah worried that she had been too forward—she had never asked a man on a date before. Then, in a mechanical motion, he tapped his wrist with his forefinger and held up five fingers twice.

“Ten o’clock tonight?” she guessed. Another small tilt of his head. “Where shall I meet you? Here?”

He jerked his chin a fraction. With his finger, he traced a spiral. Mystified, Leah stepped back, hoping to meet his eyes, but they were still focused above her.

 “Il Bovolo?” she asked, inspiration striking. The circular staircase nicknamed “The Snail” because of its construction.

He nodded.

 “Okay, great! I’ll see you then.”

__

The performance in the Scuolo resembled an eighteenth-century salon concert, with the players wearing satin gowns, waistcoats, and powdered wigs. Whether it was the cloying heat, the remnants of the wine, or the sweet sound of the violins, Leah felt a romantic dreaminess overtake her. As the bows passed over strings, winging music through the softly lit room, she wondered how the mime would look without gold paint. Would he be ordinary? Was he an actor or a student trying to pay for school? How old was he? She thought he was about her age: 24. Did he live in Venice? Dozens of questions flicked through her mind.

After an encore, the octet accepted applause, and the audience filtered out into the warm evening. As Leah walked down the exterior steps, the nearly full moon was visible high in the sky. Her watch said 9:45. The dreaminess disappeared. She was excited. Cinderella meeting her prince. That’s how she felt, although she realized the mime was probably looking for a free glass of wine and some quick sex. She didn’t know what she wanted, if she desired or feared a seduction. She had never dated much, but since starting her new job, with its long hours, the opportunities to meet anyone had dwindled. And if she were honest, in addition to being shy, Leah also felt some ambivalence about men. Would tonight clarify her confusion?

Leah headed toward Campo Manin. On the fondamenta, two gondoliers were enticing a group of Japanese tourists to see Casanova’s house. Smiling, thinking of her own Casanova, she turned left into the narrow Ramo della Salizzada that led to the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. Leah paused, listening for footsteps, but heard nothing except a scrappy cat in the distance. The passageway was dark, a little frightening, like many of the smallest streets after the sun went down. She edged into a courtyard, part of which was ensconced within a high, wrought-iron fence. Inside the enclosure was a small mat of grass and several wellheads. Leah stared up at Il Bovolo, at its six levels of spiraling stairs attached to five loggias. She had visited it during the daytime, studying its mixed-pedigree architecture, but tonight the place was different, eerie in the silence. A chill passed over her. She wished she had worn a sweater.

Fifteen minutes went by. She was beginning to feel ridiculous. Perhaps the mime was in the shower, scrubbing off gold paint and laughing at her. Leah decided to leave, but as she stepped into the ramo, someone was coming toward her. She backed up and saw him, all in gold, cloaked, carrying a wicker picnic case.

Buona sera,” she said, smiling.

The mime didn’t reply, but his eyes glittered. He walked past her and unlatched the tall gates to the palazzo. As she stepped into the enclosure, Leah wondered why the place was unlocked. She watched him walk to the staircase, bow, and extend his arm in a grand sweep upward. Leah hesitated, thinking of the exhausting climb to the top. She was also anxious about this bizarre rendezvous. With the lightest touch on her back, the mime encouraged her forward, and she acquiesced, beginning the curving ascent and noticing the shadows of the rounded arches cast across her path. At the third level, holding onto the railing, she stopped to catch her breath. His breathing wasn’t labored like hers, she noted with surprise, as she examined his composed expression. Dipping his head, the mime urged her to continue. The only sound was the clack of her sandals. His were silent, as if he were floating up the stairs.

At the fourth level, the view improved. The red-tiled roofs and terracotta chimneys, grayed by moonlight, angled in all directions. Behind her, the mime paused, still showing no signs of fatigue. He must have powerful legs from holding long poses on the box, Leah thought. She imagined touching his tight calves and firm thighs and admonished herself for her sexual fantasy.

When she mounted the steps to the final level, the belvedere, the city stretched before her. To the right, the domes and campanile of St. Mark’s were lit by spotlights. As Leah leaned through the opening of one of the arcades, a mild attack of vertigo struck. Quickly, she turned away from the view and focused on the mime, who was setting the case on the floor and opening it. Inside were three flute glasses, a bottle of prosecco, red grapes, and a square gold cloth. He placed everything on the cloth except the bottle, whose cork he released with a hiss. He then poured wine into two glasses and gave Leah hers. After they clicked rims, Leah drank the cool, sparkling prosecco, noting its florid bouquet. She watched as the wine passed his lips, his mouth and cheeks hardly moving, almost as if he weren’t drinking at all, yet the level of his glass had fallen to half. In silence, he removed a pearl-handled knife from his cloak and cut a twig from the main stem of grapes, laying a small cluster of fruit in her palm. He placed the knife on the gold cloth. It’s blade gleamed in the moonlight.

“Are you from Venice?” she asked in a low voice.

A twinkle lit his eyes, but he didn’t respond.

Leah wanted to ask him many things, but the mime seemed content with their non-verbal communication. She placed a plump red grape in her mouth, enjoying the pop as the skin burst and savoring the sweet flesh rolling between her teeth. After he ate a grape, he stood and tossed the pits over the balcony. Amused, she set her glass down and did the same. A second later, the mime moved behind her. His chest touched her back, and his arms encircled her in gold. The moment was dizzying, as he pressed her against the railing. It would be effortless for him to lift her up and throw her into space.

A jab of fear pricked the romantic mood. What was she doing here with this silent man? Was she in danger? Within his arms, she turned to face him. As she did, from far below, Leah heard a metallic clang that sounded like the gate closing. She listened intently, observing his steadfast eyes as they observed hers. Who was there? No one would visit Il Bovolo this late at night when the gates should be locked, although how he had arranged for them to be open was a mystery.

The mime tightened his embrace. She felt claustrophobic and yet unable to move, bound by his arms and unwavering gaze. Soft footsteps. Did he know who was ascending the winding staircase? He had brought three wine glasses. Perhaps he did.

Leah forced herself to breathe, matching his inhalations until she became calmer. Although she was still afraid, she felt herself succumbing to his beauty, like she had imbibed an aphrodisiac that dispelled her fears and replaced them with passion. She stared at his pale eyes and was amazed at how they were illuminated with moonlight, how his gold skin glowed. Then, gently, he touched his lips to hers in a kiss, a kiss that was delicate, otherworldly, exhilarating.

Leah shivered with a mix of excitement and apprehension. She wanted to be alone with the mime, to acquiesce to his tender seduction, but someone was on the level below. A minute passed before a slender figure appeared, wearing a floor-length white toga belted with a silken rope and a separate headpiece held in place with another cord. The face was a mask of chalky white with the oval eyes heavily outlined in black kohl. A woman. She was as tall as the gold mime and carried a wooden box, the one he had been standing on earlier in the evening.

The gold mime let his arms fall away from Leah. Without any greeting, he poured prosecco into the third glass, handed it to the woman, and topped off Leah’s and his own. The two mimes toasted each other and Leah. Despite her uneasiness, she slowly drank the wine, delighting in its effervescence and the sensual spark that had ignited between the three of them.    

When the bottle was empty, the man placed it in the wicker case and stepped toward Leah. Turning her to face the woman, he held Leah’s arms firmly. She felt anxious again, impelled to speak.

“Who are you?” she asked, but neither mime answered. The woman moved closer, her eyes observing Leah with an eerie intensity. Then she leaned down and kissed Leah, much as the man had done: the lightest press of flesh, yet the sensation was electrifying. The woman watched the effect and again brought her lips to Leah’s, her tongue delicately exploring Leah’s mouth, a white hand caressing her throat, a thumb pressing the long tendons of her neck.

“Oh,” Leah murmured, desire escaping in the exhalation of sound. She had never wanted to touch a woman before or had she sublimated the urge? Suddenly, the need was overwhelming, but the man’s strong hands held her tight, trapping her against him. A third kiss came, more provocative and erotic. Leah yearned for the woman to make love to her.

The white mime’s face shone in the light of the moon. A smile twitched at her composure as she looked at the man. When he nodded, the woman began unwrapping the cord from around her waist. Before Leah realized what was happening, the gold mime pressed Leah’s hands together, and the woman bound Leah’s wrists with the silken rope. They escorted her to one of the arcades, and the man tied the cord’s end to the iron-grille door. Though Leah knew she should resist, Leah didn’t wish to break the enchantment. Standing captive, passively, felt strangely wonderful, as if the weight of making constant decisions, the oppression of her daily life had been miraculously lifted.

It was also very exciting. She longed for the woman to kiss her again. When she did, the kiss was sublime. Leah felt as if she were painlessly exploding from a hard chrysalis, soaring beyond the pull of gravity. She breathed deeply and gloried in this new incarnation of herself.

As the white mime glided away, the man moved closer and placed his golden mouth on Leah’s, saturating her with his radiance. Then he stepped to her side, brushed Leah’s hair with his hand, and caressed her cheek with his finger. After a moment, he turned to the woman and gestured toward the box she’d carried up the stairs. The white mime opened it and placed three jars, several small sponges, and a brush beside Leah. With infinite care, they began painting her bare arms with metallic silver makeup, rubbing it into her skin with practiced strokes. They applied the color to her face, hair, hands, legs, and after removing her shoes, to her feet. The gold mime sponged the dye onto her leather sandals while the woman brushed her white blouse and skirt until it sparkled. When she touched her, Leah felt a quickening of sexual desire. Sensing this, the woman smiled but said nothing. 

“What are you doing?” Leah asked, though she didn’t expect an answer and none came.

The two mimes finished their handiwork and returned everything to the case and box. Afterward, they stood in front of Leah, slowly cocking their heads in unison before leaning over and kissing her on the lips, one by one.

The gold mime smiled, his eyes shining with mischief. “Addio,” he whispered, stretching out the word until it evaporated in the still night. He grasped the woman’s hand, and after a backward glance, they silently disappeared down the staircase.

Leah stood tied to the iron-grille door, stunned. When the gate clicked below, she realized the mimes had really abandoned her, that her fantasy of the three of them trooping about the city, performing, and collapsing in bed, a mass of white, gold, and silver bodies, wouldn’t happen. She felt heavy with disappointment, ashamed that she’d let herself be painted and kissed and petted, but as she considered what had occurred, her mood began to change. Hurriedly, she picked at the knots in the cord and, finally free, ran down the staircase.    

She searched for them near the Rialto Bridge, then double-backed to the Basino Orseolo, with its fleet of gondolas bobbing like black horses. Even though it was late, many people were about, but the mimes weren’t among them. Perhaps they had returned to St. Mark’s Square for a last act? Ignoring the looks she was receiving, she hurried into the piazza, which was awash with bright lights, pigeons, and people. As she did so, the band near Florian’s started to play the Carousel waltz. Several men and women began to dance together.

Leah stopped abruptly and stared at her silver arms, legs, and clothes. Although she had always been too inhibited to dance in public, she felt invisible in her new silver skin. She closed her eyes and imagined the mimes kissing her. Exhilaration crackled through her body. As the band played more brightly, she lifted her chin and slowly opened her eyes. Swaying to the music, Leah stepped into the square and accepted the hand of one of the dancers. After a few moments, the crowd parted for her and began to clap. She separated from the group and began whirling in ever-widening circles across the piazza, her feet light, her heart filling with joy. She was no longer an American tourist, a woman who held a dreary job in Sewickley. She was transformed into a new incandescent self, glistening with moonlight.

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Laury A. Egan is the author of Fog and Other Stories. “The Mime” is included in this 23-story collection (StoneGarden.net Publishing, May 2012). Her psychological suspense novel, Jenny Kidd, set in Venice, was published in November, 2012 (Vagabondage Press). Two poetry books, Snow, Shadows, a Stranger and Beneath the Lion’s Paw, are available from FootHills Publishing. Her work has appeared in over 35 literary journals and anthologies, and her story “I Really Can’t Say” was a finalist in the 2011 Glass Woman Ghost Story competition. Website: www.lauryaegan.com and blog: www.lauryaeganblog.wordpress.com.