Countless stories have been told of the ways in which masks can change or manipulate people. There’s something about one’s face being hidden that adds an air of both mystery and discomfort. Through horror and fantasy alike, masks are a major element of tale-weaving.
By the title of this, I’m sure you’re all expecting some Goosebumps style thing of a haunted shop with a timeless owner selling masks for the price of a soul, but you won’t find anything like that within these lines. What you will find, however, is a tale spun from the threads of reality. Something that did, in fact, happen to myself and a friend of mine. Something we both speculate about to this day.
Back in high school, my friend and I signed up with a small group of other honors students to do a student tour of southern Italy. It was us, another larger group from Newfoundland, Canada, and a senior tour group. We were all together through the same program and has the same guides and itineraries. A side note worth mentioning was that the self-proclaimed Newfies were obsessed with causing property damage and blaming a bunch of American kids. Even in their own rooms the hostels were more than prepared to blam us over them. I may write more about that in the future, but for now, let’s talk Venice.
Venice. We weren’t there long. We got off a ferry, got a brief tour, and then released into the town and expected to return by the next time the ferry came by. No one expected any of us to go far. Everything a tourist could ever want was right there in the main square. Snacks and souvenir stands of all kinds everywhere. My friend and I were drawn to the masks. We both had decided that we would leave Venice with masks long before we arrived. But the masks that hung from the stalls were all the same. Mass-produced plastic and wholly uninspired. My friend would NEVER settle for such tourist trash. So off we went telling ourselves we’d grab some cheap ones on our way back.
We left the main square and wandered through the residential areas of Venice. Houses built practically on top of each other with narrow cobble-stone walkways between them. We wandered around admiring the architecture and just absorbing the feeling of such an old and beautiful place. Until we found it.
I can’t remember the name of the shop, but there it was, door open to the stone street. Masks hung from everywhere. The walls were covered, the ceiling bore at least a hundred hanging pieces. All gorgeously detailed. From the massive statement pieces to the small, manageable ones. Not a single piece didn’t appear to be crafted with love and care. There was one other customer inside talking to a woman who we presumed to be the owner. She handed him a mask and with a nod, he left. Without a moment’s hesitation, the woman approached my friend and me.
“Welcome, welcome!” her accent was thick, “What brings you two young ladies to my shop?”
We shook hands and explained ourselves. She was surprised we’d come so far away from the tourist groups, but she was quick to start asking all the right questions. She asked us about ourselves and our interests. She asked why exactly we wanted masks. She asked if we would take good care of her creations. We told her everything. We wanted masks because we were both in love with theater and we would be more than happy to give two of her masks good homes. Of course, these are all excellent sales tactics which did indeed end with a question of budget.
She invited us to look around while she, too, looked around on our behalf. My friend and I tried on some really over-the-top pieces just for the heck of it. They always fit perfectly between our vastly different heads and faces. We’re having fun, but we know time is running out. The woman returns with two half masks. She puts one in each of our hands.
“Try them on.”
And so we did. Immediately we were in love. They were perfect in every way including price. She took our cards and asked if we wanted to bag them. Hell no. We were gonna wear them for the rest of the trip. She was delighted to see us so happy with her creations. Once more she made us promise we’d take good care of them. Once more we reassured her. She hugged us both before sending us on our way.
The second we stepped out of the shop, we felt a bit lost. My friend insisted she could backtrack our steps, but inevitably, the meandering narrow roads started to blur together. Even looking at the unique architecture around us, nothing seemed familiar. There was no way we could be that lost, but time was ticking. The ferry would be back in a matter of minutes. We started panicking we’d never get back in time so we backtracked to the mask shop.
Upon arriving at the building, my friend and I stood and stared in utter shock and horror. The shop was gone.
Everything about the building was the same. It eas DEFINITELY the same building. We went a block over. It wasn’t there. We went a block in. Not there. Walked back a bit. Still no signs of the mask shop.
We heard someone call our names and we turned to find a chaperone not far from us. The ferry had arrived and we were holding it up. She frantically escorted us back to the docks.
Once we were on the ferry and everyone was calmed down and settled, we kept getting compliments from the rest of our tour group about our masks. We told them we found a mask shop back among the houses. Our tour guide kinda sat up and looked at us like we were insane.
“There isn’t one back there…”
We laughed because we knew we had been to a mask shop and had the goods as evidence.
But at the same time… When we tried to get back to that very same shop…
My friend and I looked at each other in a mix of confusion, mysticism, and horror. Neither of us were the types to so easily be convinced of supernatural things, but here we were.
And yes, we checked our card balances and both just read “Cash” for the amount we paid for our masks. So the transaction happened. We definitely entered some hidden away shop and purchased a pair of masks from a woman who made them all by hand. It happened. There was hard evidence that it did, but still…
We couldn’t find the shop again. We asked people about it and no one knew what we were talking about. The Venice guide was even a bit weirded out. Maybe we really just couldn’t find out way back and everyone else was just playing into some mysterious Venician lore. It didn’t matter to us at the time. My friend and I were certain we’d experienced something wholly unique. And even if all that was true, that little mask shop tucked away on the back roads of Venice was the highlight of both our experiences, and as I said before, we still talk about it to this day.
I still have the mask, but my life has been in such a mess lately that I can’t put my hands on it in time to post this tale, but when I do find it again, I’ll be sure to update the imagery! It was a red white and blue checkered half mask with gold trim. It doesn’t sound as nice as it really is which is why I’d like to find it eventually. My friend’s was gold with a feather and some jewels. Both were made of leather. There’s a picture of us wearing them somewhere… I wonder if I can find that…