THE TAILOR WAS always awed by the sight of a stranger returning from the lawless world of sleep so, having only just set eyes on him for the first time, he had many questions for the prone figure of Orsino Duran. What if I should push your shoulder, thought the tailor, and you are already as hard as stone? Or what if you are not dead but just drunk, or gone mad, and in your long slumber have fallen into a dream of despair? What if I wake you and you are roused into visiting some unwarranted rage against me? Will you be someone new when you wake? Have you been transformed by the world you have visited in your sleep? Who are you?
That the tailor had only just now seen his landlord for the first time was perhaps surprising. After all he had been a tenant in the room immediately beneath the old man's for two weeks already. But the simple fact of the matter was that the only thing the old man ever did was lie in bed all the long day and rattle on to his nurse and neighbour, Signora Maria, about the ache in his legs or the piss that was soaking through his nappy, and the tailor had little time for such lamentosi. He preferred the solitude that enveloped him in his room, journeying into his drawings, his combinations and recombinations of ideas, his cases full of histories, scratching impressions into his small black notebook, coaxing cloth, scissor and needle until late in the night.
It was the woman, Signora Maria, who had prompted the tailor into finally making the journey up to his landlord's room. She had interrupted his work with a shout, almost pushing him upstairs to check on the old man in his bed and had clutched at him from behind like a terrified child as he poked his head through the door and into the room. The way the sheets were pulled taut over the old man's body really did seem to confirm the fears of his nurse.
"Signore Duran is dead!" she wailed. "I dreamt it last night. I am sure of it. Oh, may the Heavenly Virgin look kindly on him."
She sounded just like Viola, the tailor thought.
But just then the old man turned over and snorted loudly, mashing his lips together as if he had never before tasted air. At the same time his skin took on some of the glow of the living again. Perhaps Signora Maria had been right in the first place, perhaps sometime early in the morning the old man had actually died for a few moments. Perhaps in some absentminded dream he had forgotten to breathe and was only just now being washed back into the regular tide of respiration by some felicitous Neptune. When the old man eventually opened his eyes, disturbed by the nurse's yelp of relief, the tailor withdrew down the stairs to his room, preferring to leave the old woman alone to tend to her ward. He looked back up at her as she disappeared into Orsino's room, crossing herself.
"Signore Duran!" he heard her cry. "Heaven be praised. I thought that ..."
But that was enough for the tailor, it was all he had ears for before he closed his door and turned to his work of tatters and threads.
EARLY THE NEXT morning, on the day of the epiphany itself, the tailor woke from a dream of Viola to the sound of a thumping knock at the front door. He groaned out of bed and shuffled towards the door. The rapping came again, but more urgently this time.
"I'm coming, Signora. Be patient. I'm coming," he called, then muttered an impatient curse to himself.
He unlatched the locks and swung the door in, but instead of finding the old woman bent over her stick as he expected, there, propped up against the doorstep in her place, was a package as large as his bolster, neatly wrapped in brown paper and bound with crossed-over strings that had been tied into a neat bow. He picked up the package and felt that it was heavy in his hands, and that its surface was cool and smooth. There was no great surprise in receiving this package. One like it had already arrived from the weaver Fabiano in Trento and another from the wholesale cloth merchant Allais in Paris. What did surprise him was that on this one his own name – his real name, not the name he had entered on the tenancy agreement – was written in large roman characters. He turned the package over, checking it for any other marks that might have given away its origin. But there was nothing on the back or the sides. Not even a postage stamp. Nothing but his own name.
The tailor stepped out onto the Campiello Loredan, searching up and down for any trace of his deliverer. Who could have sent it? No one knew where he was. Not even Viola. He had only told her that he could not come back until he had pieced together his masterpiece, and that certainly had not happened. He had not made anything worthwhile. Nothing original at least. The genius he had been so sure of owning did not want to arrive.
He looked deep into the street, but the morning was cold, and during the night a mist had rolled into every awkward corner of the city from the Adriatic, so there was nothing to see.
"So finally," he laughed out loud, taking the package firmly into his grip. "A gift from La Befana for Sebastiano Bevi!" But his smile tightened over his lips as soon as the words left them and he heard his name report and repeat against the walls of the empty street.
Back in his room the tailor set aside the remnants of his failed labours of the night before and sat the parcel down on the table, loosening the string bow at the knot. He was proud of the care he took in untying it, smoothing each layer of wrapping flat to the wood, imagining that if it had been addressed to Viola how she would have ripped at it purposelessly, impatient for its impending surprise. He folded back the last of the wrapping. Inside was a rusted tin box whose lid had been sealed tight with wax. He took the house key that was tied to a string from his pocket and ran it around the lip of the lid. But even after he had removed all of the wax he still had to prise the key under the rusted lid to lever it off. He pushed and pushed until finally the key snapped.
"Mary and Joseph and Jesus!" he cursed, but was glad to see that the lid had finally popped free.
This small excitement sank though when he saw that there was no letter inside. There was something, only he couldn't work out just what it might be. It looked like a pale leather bag. He lifted it from the box and, as carefully as he could, laid it on top of the wrapping paper. Once it was out of the box he realised that it didn't look like a bag at all. His expertise told him that the material showed no sign of having been sewn together anywhere, and there were no zippers. He rubbed his palm over it and it made his skin crawl with pleasure. It was soft and oily. He dug his fingertips into it, but then flinched and pulled his hand away, surprised that his cock had grown hard.
The leather looked like a single length of bald pelt that had been folded into a fat wad. He let himself touch it again lightly with his fingertips and he folded back one layer so that it formed a strangely familiar rectangle of hide. He scanned the surface of the leather. There were what looked like two dark buttons on either side of the top end of the object, and another below it in the very middle, which really looked more like a shrivelled knot or a button hole, rather than an actual button, and below that the material was folded back and under itself. From above the two buttons he unravelled a pair of long sleeves. It looked to him like a shirt or a coat of a kind he had never seen before. He let his fingers feel the texture of the small hard protrusions and the smoothness below it and around the knot. He felt the ache between his legs again. This certainly was an exquisite material.
The suit (because it was clear to him now that this is what it was) was fashioned into gloves at the ends of each sleeve, each with four petite fingers and a fine thumb, each digit neatly folded back onto itself. He began to unfold it, thinking to himself that it was like a story that would reveal itself fold by fold, a mystery, a sustained musical note. It was an unusually thin hide, not like cow's or sheep's leather, but while it looked fragile, he could tell by its texture that it was resilient, as if it had been tanned or cured with some sort of preserving agent, one that left it still feeling supple and fresh. And most strange of all was that it was all perfectly joined. It was breathlessly seamless.
As he unfurled the hide further and further it started to take shape. He turned it over and folded back what he thought was a pair of stockings. They were folded three times. First at the hips, then at the knees and finally at each ankle. But then, as he turned it over again, he looked to where the neckline of the costume should have been and he had to shut his eyes, disbelieving their evidence. He felt ashamed, sickened by his own erection.
BUT THE TAILOR'S erection would deflate, even though he now knew that what he held in his hands was human skin. He pulled the scalp up by its unnaturally bald crown and looked at the face, into its empty eyeholes. It looked so flat and shallow, like a deflated balloon, that it was hardly a face at all. He stretched it over his fist to try to fill it out but his gorge rose and he had to turn away – not at any horror he felt at handling such a gruesome artefact or even because he was touching it so intimately. He didn't know why. It reminded him of a detail in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, the figure of St Bartholomew on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, his own flayed skin, a limp flag of faith draped from his raised hand. He had taken Viola to see it in Rome for the first time just before Christmas. They had stood there engulfed by the vast temple of colour and drama, but somehow he was bereft of feeling for it. It was not the same emotion he had felt when he was the teenager accompanying his father to see a Rome cloth wholesaler and had made the pilgrimage to the Vatican on his own account. On that first visit he had given out a deflated adolescent gasp of awe at the sight of the fresco, seized with the ambition that he would one day make garments that would rival it in sheer vision, garments that his father would never have been able to imagine possible. His return with Viola 20 years later had only made him realise the gulf between what he had wanted to achieve and what he had actually scratched out. He had turned to Viola, about to admit his disappointment, when she gave her very own short gasp of awe, her eyes moist with the stream of her conquered heart. Who was he to disappoint her young faith?
Now in Venice he was holding this marvellous object in his hands. It was the one garment that promised to fulfil the genius he had come to find. He thought of Viola again and wondered whether he shouldn't just go back to Pistoia after all and end this game of silence.
He carefully lifted the skin across to the bed and examined it. Was it a man? A woman? There was nothing between its legs. Certainly there was a slit, but did that have to mean it was a woman? Perhaps it had had its genitalia removed. Its breasts were so flat that they could have belonged to anything – man, woman or child. And what if he were to be discovered here with this skin? Shouldn't he just surrender it to the police? He imagined incredulity, accusations, murder trials, terrible punishment. Where would he stand then? He didn't want to know. This must be part of someone's perverse game. He did not want to be part of it. He quickly refolded the object and tried to stuff it back in the box, only now it wouldn't fit properly. He pushed it in anyway, sloppily, so that it bulged and bubbled, then put on his coat and tucked the relic away under his arm, finally aware that what had aroused him so forcefully was the same feeling that had also made him so ill. It was that the skin looked alive. More than alive. It was a rhyme of himself. He couldn't bear to have it near him any longer.
THE TAILOR LEFT the house and a few corners away, came across a child, a young girl with a dark face, who was sitting on some steps that led to a narrow canal where a small rowboat was moored. The girl was crying as if there were no tomorrow. He wanted to walk past her, to find somewhere quiet where he could throw the box into the water without being seen, but he couldn't help glancing down at her as he passed by. She looked up at him with the big wet, brown discs of her eyes.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked.
The little girl held back her tears and didn't say anything but he saw that she was rolling a piece of charcoal around in her hands and that they were blacker even than her face and her hair. The sight of the charcoal reminded him of the unpleasant moments of his own childhood, when he had been teased and provoked for being something the other children were not, for wearing clothes that were too neat, too considered. He sat down on the steps beside her and remembered a story he thought might make her feel better.
"One evening a long time ago," he began in the same soothing storytelling voice he had used to tell stories to Viola, "there lived an old woman of Bethlehem who was busy sweeping the dirt from her house when she heard a knock at the door."
Here the tailor knocked playfully on the child's forehead, making a door-knocking sound with his tongue: "Clop. Clop." The girl squealed and giggled.
"The old woman opened the door and standing there were three travellers, each holding a donkey by a rope." He paused a moment then added, somewhat like a donkey, "E-or."
"E-or," said the child in imitation.
"The men at the woman's door were finely clothed in the most beautiful purple and green and vermilion fabrics that had ever been seen in the land. In fact, they were so fine that ... "
"What's vermilion?" interrupted the child.
"Red," said the tailor. "It's red."
"Then why didn't you say red?" said the child.
He thought about it for a moment then said, "It's always good to learn new words."
The child squinted at him suspiciously. "Just tell the story," she said saucily, not having the words to argue with him.
"They were so finely clothed," he continued, "that some who saw them at the time later called them kings, while others said that they were wise men."
"Do you know what they were?" asked the child.
"No," said the tailor. "It's only a story anyway. If you want to know the truth the old woman even thought that they were astrologers. But they could be wise men and kings and astrologers all at the same time if that's what you want."
"OK, that sounds good to me," said the girl.
"Whatever they were," said the tailor, "they said that they had come from the east, following the star that heralded the birth of the child who would be king. The old woman wasn't impressed. The black one saw this and stepped forward to speak for the men ... "
"You didn't tell me there was a black one," said the child.
"Does it matter?" said the tailor harshly.
"No," she sulked.
"Well then, the green man stepped forward."
"You said he was black."
"You said it didn't matter."
The girl glared at him. "OK. He's green."
"Good," said the tailor. "So the orange man stepped forward" (here the girl punched him in the shoulder with great glee – the tailor ignored it) "and with a gentle voice he asked the old woman, 'Do you know, dear lady, where the holy child is to be found?' But the old woman was angry with the men because she was much too busy sweeping her house and altogether too worried about the fortunes of her own children to bother herself with a bunch of foreign astrologers looking for someone else's baby. 'Go away,' she said rudely, 'I have no time for fools like you.' Then she slammed the door in their faces. 'They must be crazy,' she muttered to herself as she picked up her broom again, 'chasing after children under the stars like that'."
The little girl looked puzzled. "Is that the end of the story?" she said.
"No, it's not," said the tailor looking at her dark face. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Olivia," said Olivia.
"Well, Olivia, this is a story that all the Italian children believe in. The old woman is known to us Italians as La Befana. The Russians call her Babushka. But since we are sitting here in Venice we must call her La Befana."
"I will call her Babushka," insisted the girl.
"Are you Russian?" asked the tailor.
"Does it matter?" replied the girl.
The tailor smiled. Touché. "No," he said. "It doesn't matter at all. It's still the same story. Soon," he went on, "everyone in the neighbourhood was telling stories about the child with the golden face who had been born in a haystack and who had been visited, not only by the three travellers, but by angels who had kept the entire league of devils at bay outside the town. La Befana realised her mistake. She decided that she should find the child and pay tribute to it. After all it must be greatness itself if everyone was talking about it like that."
"But what was her mistake?" Olivia asked. "Mothers shouldn't abandon their children or their houses. They should give presents to their children."
The tailor ignored her and kept talking. "La Befana ... "
"Babushka," interrupted the girl, demanding some hearing.
"OK, have it your way," said the tailor. "Babushka didn't know where to find the wonderful child, so she went from house to house, looking everywhere for it. But she didn't even know what the baby looked like, or even if it was a boy or a girl. So to be sure that she would leave a gift with the holy child she left gifts with every household that had at least one child. And, as the story goes, she still looks for the baby every year at the same time, leaving presents in every house where she finds children."
"Now, is that the end of the story?"
"Yes," the tailor declared, "that's the end of the story."
"But Babushka is still looking for the baby."
"That doesn't matter because if she ever found him then children would never get lollies if they have been good or charcoal if they have been bad."
The child looked down at her hands. They were smeared black with the charcoal someone had already given her. She squeezed the block tight then threw it away into the canal. It plopped into the water.
"Plop," said the tailor.
"Plop," said Olivia.
They both sat quietly for a moment watching the ripples fade into the water. The tailor had forgotten why he had even started to tell the story and only just now remembered. He had meant to leave out the bit about good and bad children and he especially meant to leave out the bit about the charcoal.
"I think the story will end when Babushka finds the child," the girl pronounced a little sadly.
"Yes, I suppose you're right," the tailor had to agree.
"Will she ever find the child?"
"I don't know, Olivia. I don't know."
The girl looked sadder still.
"Did La Befana bring you any sweets this year?" she asked, putting on a brave face. "Or did she bring you charcoal?"
The tailor felt the box under his coat and held it tight.
"No, Olivia, she didn't bring me anything. I'm not a child anymore."
"But you must have a mummy and a daddy."
"I have a mummy."
"Then you're still a child, aren't you?"
The girl noticed just how sad the tailor looked then – so sad that he looked as though he was about to laugh. But before she could do anything to make him feel better he stood up, patted her on the head and walked away. The girl sat there for a while, scraping her feet on the stone steps up to the embankment, not thinking of anything in particular. Then she noticed a small notebook lying next to her. The man who had told her the story must have left it behind; it must have fallen from his pocket. She picked it up and was about to call after him, but it was too late, he was already gone, so she opened the book and started to read, trying to make sense of the strange pictures he had drawn.
THE TAILOR FINALLY arrived outside the door on the Campiello Loredan late in the afternoon, the box of skin still snuggled to his breast under his coat. After telling the girl the story he had noticed his black notebook missing and went back to search for it. But both the girl and the book had disappeared. Even the rowboat had vanished. After that he hadn't found the right moment to toss the box away. He had just wandered about, not sure of where he was going, still disoriented by the contortions of the city's canals and bridges. When he found Orsino Duran's house he wasn't even sure if he was at the right door. He reached into his pocket and found that in there, tied to the string, he had only half a key, so held the box close with his left hand and knocked on the door with the right. But the door had already been unlatched and it swung open. He was sure he had locked it before he left. He stepped over the threshold and saw, sitting at the table in the television room, a prettyish young woman, her blank daydreaming face resting lightly in her palm. She looks just like Viola, thought the tailor. Even her suit, a brave red three-piece, looked like one he had made just for her 18th birthday. He almost spoke her name out loud, but caught himself just in time. On the table was a silver service tray crowded with empty coffee cups, a bowl of sugar and an array of spoons. It was as if visitors were expected at any moment. The tailor made a noise and the woman composed her face into a gentle smile. Her likeness to Viola really was uncanny. Viola, but still not Viola. Then she started talking, but something wasn't right, he couldn't listen to what she was saying. He just stared at her big empty eyes, at her hair, at the shape of her body. At her skin.
"Are you even listening to me?" she said breaking into his silence.
"I'm sorry – what?"
When he spoke he saw something in her change. Her body seemed to convulse a little, making her cup rattle in its saucer. It was as if she had made some realisation, felt the sudden insatiable hunger pang of a loss. The joy and terror of recognition.
"I asked you ... if ... if... how," she said searching through her confusion for what it might have been, but she couldn't find what she had to say. Finally she made a gesture toward the stairs, that he should move up them, into Orsino Duran's room, to see what was there.
THE TAILOR FIRST of all noticed the old man's skin, how freshly dead it looked – jaundiced and mottled with liver spots. He was laid out on the bed, dressed in his Sunday suit, a scarf tied around his head and under his chin, clamping shut his mouth. He looked clean and combed. The suit, brown with wide lapels, looked at least half a century old and smelled of mothballs. Pinned to his chest were a few medals, red stars suspended from short red strips of fabric. The old woman sat on a wooden chair beside Orsino Duran's body, wailing and counting her rosaries. She stared down at him, patting his hair and rubbing the skin on his lifeless cheek with the back of her sorry fingers, like a mother would to her small child. To the tailor the skin on the old man's face looked just like the one in the box still under his arm.
"Look at my Papageno," the old woman cried, "with his mouth clamped shut like that. I did love him so." She was broken, with one hand on her cane and the skin sagging from her cheeks. "And I didn't even know him. For all these years. Really ... I didn't even know him. It was the doctor who called for his granddaughter. I hoped one day ... that he might ... then of course ... no." Her head rattled, crying. She moaned into her hand, unable to say what it was she wanted. The tailor wanted to hold her, to comfort her. He put out his hand, about to stroke her face when she looked up at him through the raw slits of her eyes.
"You have to leave here now," she wailed violently. "Take your stupid work and go. No one wants you here."
The tailor stood there for a moment, wholly stunned that Signora Maria, the nursemaid and disappointed lover of Orsino Duran, could have said this cruel thing to him. He wanted to say something, to strike back at her, but he knew it was useless. It would have been cruel. Anyway, he was already shut out. She had returned to the labours of her mourning, and he knew that with all its unfulfilled potential and heavy grief, he didn't belong in this room. It was not his place.
He trudged back down the stairs. Still no one had arrived to visit, to pay their respects to the dead. The pretty young woman with the red suit was returning the coffee cups to their place in the display cabinet. She looked up at him. That uncertainty still lingered about her.
"Are you his granddaughter?" the tailor asked.
"Of sorts," she said continuing with her chore. "The generations don't always want to recognise each other. He just wanted to be alone."
"He must have had a reason," said the tailor. She shrugged and put the last of the cups away and closed the cabinet door. It all looked perfect.
"If he did, then he didn't tell me about it. I only ever met him once and that was when my mother died."
The woman turned away from him, the conversation was closed. The tailor, too, turned away and was about to enter his room when the woman spoke again.
"I remembered what I asked you before. I wanted to know how you knew him. But now I realise that I already know. You're the tenant here. You're the tailor, yes? What's your name?"
The tailor hesitated. He thought about how to answer. He was sorry now that he'd ever cast aside his real name. Suddenly the truth mattered to him. "Yes," he said finally. "I am the tailor."
The woman looked at him plainly enough, as if she saw through his half truth, but couldn't make out exactly what it was she was seeing – why he hadn't said his name. He nodded politely to her and left her to her work.
In his room the tailor removed the tin box from under his coat and sat it on the bed. He thought about the generations. About Orsino Duran and his granddaughter. One within the other. The older generation resisting the younger, denying it as an intimation of the dread approach of death. He, too, had felt the burden of having to demonstrate each day the faith he was meant to have in himself. Of being Sebastiano Bevi, day after day. The tailor, the son of a tailor.
He lifted the skin out of its box and unfurled it across the sheets, smoothing it down, savouring its delicacy. It was evidence of the truth – that he would never be able to make the garment he wanted. It was impossible. He was no genius. Genius resided in other minds, with spirits who had faith. It shamed him to be able to admire its perfection against the motley scraps he had littered the room with. He was left silent. Abandoned. Still.
It was in that stillness that the idea came to him – about how to use the skin. First he removed his heavy coat, then his pullover and shirt, then he wedged off his shoes and peeled off his socks. Finally he unbuckled his belt and let his trousers and shorts drop to the floor. Next he took a razorblade from the sink, running it along the meat of his palm to ensure it was sharp. A thread of blood wept from the cut and he sucked at it until it stemmed. He took the blade and ran it along the spine of the skin so that it curled open like an empty seed pod. Then he stepped through into the hole he had made and into its legs. The skin against his own was cold and soft, but soon it took on the warmth from his body. Next he wedged his arms into the sleeves and stretched out into the chest. It hugged him faithfully, following exactly the contours of his body. He looked into the mirror, at his sad face. A fool's, he thought. He had no more need for it. He pulled the face of the skin over his own. It bubbled and hugged about his points and corners and seemed to pull his face out of shape, to transform it until it came to rest in one final form. And as the sun started to set on that long strange day of the Epiphany he lay down on his bed and fell fast asleep, all the time dreaming.
After an hour he woke, unsure now of who he was and what he had seen in his dreams. He shook the uncertain drowse from his head and put on his old clothes, forgetting his new skin. Then he gathered up his things in a bag. He knew he would leave now and not return to the room. He would send for his books later. Outside, the television room was in near darkness, but the woman in red was still there, sitting alone on a chair, pulling on a cigarette. A firefly in the night.
"You're leaving?" she said.
"Yes," he said. "I don't feel right about staying."
He followed the glowing end of the cigarette as the woman leaned over. The light came on. The woman squinted for a moment as her eyes cleared of smoke and adjusted to the light. Finally she looked at him square, right into the new shape of his face.
"Ah," she laughed softly. "It's you after all. Why didn't you tell me it was you? I didn't recognise you."
The tailor took the woman's young hand, folding it with love into his own, unable to tell where one skin ended and the other began, the knowing of Viola descending on him.