"OK, I've decided on this one."
Henri led Marc out of the shop and into the narrow street. She ignored the tuts from passersby as she stopped to pull the package out of the carrier bag.
"Why don't you leave it wrapped up? It'll be easier to get it home in one piece," said Marc. He pulled on her handbag strap, trying to urge her towards one of the large, and less crowded, squares.
"But I want to show you now! Honestly, it's so cool, I'm going to have to find some kind of excuse to wear it when we get home."
Her fingers tore through the many layers of paper, and she shoved the ball of protective tissue back into the bag. With a cry of triumph, she held out the mask towards Marc. He gave it a glance as he steered her along the twisting alleyways. It seemed Henri had finally gone for her original choice, a half-face mask sculpted to look like a cat, complete with ears, feline nose and plump cheeks. The mask was a patchwork of gold, white and faded sheet music.
"Ah, that one. I told you that was the most 'you' mask they had."
"I know but I needed to be sure. It's not like we'll come back here, is it?"
Henri held the mask up to her face, peering through the eye holes. Marc looked away, unnerved to see his girlfriend's eyes and nose disappear behind the paint and papier mache. She mewed at him and Marc rolled his eyes.
"Do you like it?" she asked.
"Yes. It's very you. Now come on, there's that bridge we have to cross to get back to the hotel."
Marc gestured ahead to the bridge. Wide stone steps led up, away from the busy pavement, and carried the street over the canal. A warren of passageways lay on the other side. He still couldn't get used to the canals, with their bright green water and faintly fishy smell. Marc couldn't guess at how deep they were - or what lurked in their depths. He'd said as much to the hotel owner this morning - Signor Spavento laughed, mumbled something in Italian, and then asked "Why else do you see no cats in Venice?"
Henri scampered ahead and peered over the side of the bridge. She held her hair back with one hand, and the mask to her face with the other. She admired her reflection in the canal.
“Oh wow, I love it! Maybe I’ll wear it at Halloween. I could be, like, a Venetian Catwoman, or something.”
Marc darted up the steps to avoid a tourist with a camera, and stood behind Henri. She looked good, but she was no Michelle Pfeiffer. Not that he’d ever tell her that. Instead he focused on the mask and thought about the fact they’d seen no cats in Venice.
A dark shadow rippled beneath the surface of the water. It lurked beneath the bridge, formless and waiting, like an ink stain caught in time. Marc looked around but saw nothing that could cast the shadow. Henri continued to primp and pose, trying out different facial expressions with the mask, oblivious to the fact that only the lower half of her face could be seen.
“Henri, we should go.”
Marc backed away from the side of the bridge, keeping his eyes on the shadow. Henri mewed, and the water below erupted upwards. Henri shrieked as Marc pulled her backwards, but the cold canal spray caught them with a jet of briny water. Tourists at either end of the bridge squealed in both delight and surprise, and the sound of camera shutters filled the air. Marc ignored it all – he’d caught a glimpse of a shadow within the impromptu fountain. A shadow with grasping hands, and something shimmering entwined in its claws.
Henri pulled a packet of tissues out of her bag and began wiping herself dry. Marc ignored the proffered tissues and stepped forward. He looked into the canal, its waters settling to a gentle motion, lapping at the boats moored either side. There was no sign of the shadow.
“Can you see anything? What the hell was that? Seriously, I’m soaked now.”
Henri appeared at his side on the bridge and looked into the water. They gasped in unison as only Marc’s reflection gazed back.
“No cats in Venice,” murmured Marc. He looked down at the mask in Henri’s trembling hand, and back into the canal.
No shadows, no ripples…and no reflection.
* * *
This is my second Venice-themed #FridayFlash, following last week's Tourists. Some more photos from my trip can be found in this blog post, which includes a photo of the mask I bought (which takes my tally of Venetian masks up to four). Now, it has to be noted, I have no idea if anything weird does live in the canals, but during the whole four days I was there, I only saw one cat. So you never know.