“Dionysia’s Bridle” by L. K. Feuerstein

Dionysia

It was nearly twilight; her moretta masterpiece was almost complete as Rosaline added the final touches to her tribute to Ariadne, wife of Dionysus, the god of wine she’d basked in as she’d contemplated attending her first Carnival.

She traced her fingers along the smooth edges of the mask. She’d marked the cheeks with emerald paths, two identical labyrinths identifying her character amidst golden and blue hues she’d chosen to highlight the eyes and forehead. She’d made a darker blue to trace along the inner side of one labyrinth, a lighter yellow on the other; threads traveling in each labyrinth only to exit and meet at a serpent in the center of the forehead, wrapped around a jar of honey.

She looked at the lips on the mask; red, she’d painted them, but there was something missing, she thought. She studied her mask carefully, and then smiled. The most difficult piece was the button. To properly wear the mask, she had to ensure that the glass would hold to her face as she bit on it. She wanted to look ravishing, adorning herself in this way, but she didn’t want it diminished by food or drink that would conspire to reveal her.

She placed the mask carefully down and painted one last detail over the red lips. In yellow and black, she created a small bee, stinger out and pointing down from the lips. I will be silent, she thought, and I will be seen.

Her heart drowned in jovial anxiety, butterflies coursing in her chest cavity spurning titillating thoughts of connecting with strangers. She had not dared touch a man since her husband, and he had died four years ago leaving her barren of child or hearth. She remembered church before her marriage, but it really wasn’t until the last few years that she found such solace and escape within the cathedral’s walls and rituals. When she was not spiritually aligned with her act of prayer, the Bishop’s attendants were readily available to give advice and administer conversation.

Rosaline had heeded dark stories revealed to her by the Bishop’s attendant Carlyle. He warned her often of the fate of the outside world in their gluttony, their folly, and their passion. He hated the Carnival and considered it an affront to the Church. She remembered his remark about how only the Protestants could sin enough in one night to increase Christ’s suffering tenfold.

But this year, as she entered her nineteenth year, she needed to take a risk. With one husband already buried, she had none to consort with outside her cousin Lazaro and the Cathedral inhabitants in a beautiful and bustling city. She spent hours pacing, hours praying, and hours watching through her small windows. Lazaro hadn’t shut her in, but he also hadn’t allowed room for her to be out and about. Had she not needed a cloak, she was unsure if she ever would have been able to gather the mask and other elements to prepare for today.

So as the time after the new year approached, she yearned to find an inspiration and she decided that before the season of starvation and penance, she would attend one, and maybe her only, Carnival.

She had worked late each night into early morning after the house was asleep. In her effort buy a cloak, she had sectioned time and a percentage of the allowance her cousin had given her to spend an unchaperoned partial day to find an artisan that could take interest in finding her a glass mask as well as procure the expected cloak. He had wrapped the mask in the cloak when she went to purchase it later in the evening. No one was the wiser as the Venetians bustled about and she discreetly purchased her intended.

The project has blossomed, the mask she loved to hold up to her face practicing biting the button. Fabric she had taken from childhood dresses were now woven together in a goddess-like and yet wild form. She had learned much of Ariadne from her mother. She remembered listening to her mother describe the art of Venice and her travels as a youth. The labyrinth was Rosaline’s favorite tale and Rosaline remembered looking up from the roof as her mother spun dreams and Rosaline searched for them in the stars. She liked to imagine that all the stories were true, Ariadne was first a consort of Theseus, but when he proved unworthy and distracted, she was then noticed, becoming the beautiful bride of Dionysus.

She pretended that the festival of Dionysia was the same as this pre-Lenten festival. It would be a celebration of wine, of women, especially of her, the new Ariadne. Rosaline giggled.

She heard floorboards creak and she quickly surveyed the room and became very quiet. No noise returned her silence, and she sighed, heart palpitating wildly.

The beloved stories ended when she was kept by her father alone. They seemed to die in her service to her late husband, and she was surprised that her mother remained so vivid now in the dreary reality of her cousin Lazaro and the church. Rarely permitted outside her stone walls, she dreamed herself a world where she would not become a sacrificial nun, but would be rescued in passion and flee all that she’d known in these years.

It was approaching dawn, she realized as she gazed into the glass eyes of her self-created fate. Today, she thought, and she tucked the dress she’d sewn and her buttoned mask underneath her bed and went to sleep. She hoped to sleep a few hours before escaping out amidst a crowd as all others would believe she was cloistered among these dimly familiar walls.

She awoke to the sounds of laughter outside as sun already filled her chamber. She could hear Lazaro stumbling on his breath. It was not even noon and yet he was utterly and completely drunk. Everyone had already begun about the holiday, but she would wait for dusk. She pondered the cooling breeze of evening as she prepared some food for her cousin who was content to drink and ignore her as he told stories of past Carnival celebrations to his friends. He had been to a small town in the north called Buckinghamshire five years ago and rambled about women running with pancakes. Sometimes his stories were less believable than those of the old gods.

As the men bumbled out into the fold of the festivities after supper, she watched for the last light to disappear from his group. Satisfied they were not returning, she went to her room to dress and reveal herself as Ariadne. She opened up a small cloth and took out a small vial, coaxing the last drops of her mother’s perfume. She scented her hair, trying to bring the fragrance down, touching her wrists, neck, and the sides of her inner thighs. She blushed, breathing in deeply, taking a swallow of her cousin’s alcohol just as she put on a cloak, put the mask over her face, and bit down on the button.

Walking out the entryway was the easy part. She had never been out on this dusk before Lent. She marveled at the multiplied number of people, the costumes from people both from near and from far. There were characters she had never seen before as well as the same faces that had appeared out her window, many not costumed at all. She was being observed and she traced the eyes that gazed upon her with a tender curiosity.

Some men bowed as they saw her move through the crowd and she slightly curtsied in the loudness, taking each moment to remember the colors of the gowns, the glimmer of the glass on the masks, the audacity of the women with the bright painted faces under masks that merely covered parts of their eyes. She did not think she could handle such bold attention.

There were breasts and codpieces around each shoulder. She could hear music and dissonance as a background to the clattering of drinks flying throughout the seen. Some were caught, some dropped, some drunk, and some regrettably thrown up.

One man pretended to catch people and drinks, but in his comedy he actually tripped over a drink and landed on the large padding of his bottom. She bit her lip over the button. She couldn’t laugh, if her mouth opened, her mask would fall and shatter, but she grinned so hard she nearly choked on her happiness.

She entered the main gathering building, wandering among guests. She was happened upon by a man dressed in a wine-dyed robe who beckoned her closer. He touched her hair, bowing, offering his hand for a dance. As they moved with other guests in a dance, she was traded between the wine-dyed stranger and a man wearing a Grecian compilation.

Fanning herself, she excused herself from dancing after a few songs and surveyed the room. In the far corner, clothing was being moved, removed, and used to bind as a masked orgy took place, each small grouping friskily enjoying company and paying little mind to other guests. She smiled slyly underneath her mask; at least one rumor Carlyle detested was true.

She looked up at the mask of the man in the wine-dyed robe, she hadn’t give it much thought, but it was a rudimentary white mask covering his eyes and nose with a long point coming four inches from his face. She looked closer; the edges of his face didn’t match the mask, so it was not made for him. She wondered if he made a meager salary or if he had borrowed the piece. He shifted slightly as she studied him. He looked toward the corner, put out his hand, and beckoned her to join him. The Grecian man behind him watched from a few feet away as she subtly hesitated and then placed the tips of her fingers in the wine-robed suitor’s palm

As she was led by him, they past the crowd at the center, headed through the carnally engaged groupings in the corner, and toward the back of the building. He guided her forward up some stairs, and she nearly protested. Remembering that her mask would fall if she spoke, she decided to follow obediently, the Grecian man following swiftly behind her.

They reached a hallway of rooms, and as the wine-robed suitor began to kiss her shoulder, the other man took a knife and dismembered her dress as he guided them both inside closed doors.

Rosaline froze, her heart nearly stopped at the site of her nearly shredded garment but she could feel both of them exploring her body with lips at first.

Then it felt as if hosts of hands grasped her, all over and she bit down on the button of the mask as she encountered explorations that elated her body and erased her concerns. She didn’t leave that room, she didn’t remember falling asleep, and when she awoke the next morning, her mask lay in front of her face on the pillow, bed wet around her, soaked in the stench of sweat, salt, and wine.

She gazed ahead of her, staring into a sleeping face of a man next to the pointed mask. She swallowed hard, recognizing the man was a Protestant, a clergyman, a man that she had seen before in the small building that supposed itself a church. Her cousin had taken a deep dislike of the Protestants, protesting their existence as a devil’s temptation. She had taken effort to walk on the other side of the street as Lazaro forbade her to speak to anyone of that church. She wanted to pray, but bowed her head in shame and instead of asking for grace, she acknowledged her fully exposed and willingly defiled body in the spirit of the festival.

She could hear herself breathing harder. She breathed deeply and began to move slowly away, attempting to withdraw from the bed as she wrapped a cloth from the bed around herself. She sat up and turned around, looking into the face of the Grecian man who was also seated there.

Her heart leapt into her stomach and then up through her mouth and she had to choke down vomit. This man was Tobias; Lazaro’s best mate’s brother; he had been in her home for supper before Carnival. Her skin paled as he looked upon her. He placed a finger on her lips and touched her cheek softly. He kissed her pulling the cloth down from her body, pulling her toward him.

She tapped his shoulder.

She felt faint, dehydrated, and she asked him for water as he explored the cheeks of her rear with his fingers. He slapped her bottom harshly and she yelped. He handed her a small water container and she took a large drink.

It burned. He began to laugh and she coughed. He then held her nose as he tipped the container towards her, making her drink. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

She felt faint, falling into him.

But Carnival is over, she half-thought as he kept on handling her, the clergyman still fast asleep next to his mask.

Tobias hoisted her up to move her around him to get her on the bed. Using pieces of the fabric, he tied her wrists over her head, and shoved some of the dirty fabric from her soiled dress into her mouth as he lost the sensuality presented the night before.

She couldn’t move as he lashed at her body, bursting open a small section of skin on her stomach. Her body responded to his violence in jerking motion, she began to yelp, her loud muffled cries awaking the clergyman.

His eyes looked nothing as they had the night before. He awoke in a fury of panic, and just as he opened his mouth to speak, the door opened. Men of her Holy Church standing there, gaping open-mouthed as Tobias landed another blow across her chest.

Yelling began. The clergyman began yelling about punishment upon the two lewd commoners disrupting his room. The true Church members were angry that the room had not been cleared out before this holy day.

The clergyman could not call out Tobias directly. Tobias was a man known to these men. Rosaline could barely hear anything over her pain which drowned her and none of them came to help her.

And then she heard it, Tobias called her a harlot, a temptress, a truly disturbed and disruptive, sinful woman that needed a lesson at the hand of God. The Church’s men and the clergyman fell silent. Her eyes pleaded with the clergyman, but he looked away.

“What say you of this woman, Protestant?” asked one of the bishop’s attendants.

The clergyman bit his lip and then agreed with Tobias, “As he says, her wiles are wicked and she has been drinking as the devil commands.”

The following moments dragged on like shadows drowning Rosaline. Her throat still burned.  She violently thrust herself forward onto the ground, removing the fabric makeshift gag with her bound hands.

“That’s a lie!” she uttered loudly.

Many hands came upon her then and she felt a sharp pain as Tobias struck her with her Ariadne mask. It fell to the ground, shattering at her legs, and she felt pangs of shooting pain and wetness dripping upon her as she was moved forward and dragged down stairs until she was taken into the underground cellar.

Everything went dark after the door closed.

She woke up in chains, a streak of light leading down toward her. Her cousin stood before her naked, filthy form. She tried to bring her hands together to cover herself. He slapped her across the face, “That’s for Tobias.” He then placed his foot on her chest and drove her to the ground. She opened her mouth to speak, but words would not escape her lips.

Lazaro studied her carefully for a moment and without a second glance, disowned her and advised that the church ought to purify or kill her.

His last word rung loudly in her ears, “She is no longer my ward.”

Rosaline swallowed her silence as the door shut, enclosed her in darkness. She was too shocked to cry, and too scared to think. Only torture could purify a sinner.

The bishop brought her out of the darkness that evening, amidst the contemplation of Ash Wednesday. After the crowd saw her face, he took a metal mask with a curved plate on the inside covered in sharp spikes. He pressed the scold’s bridle onto her face, fastening the mask to her at the back of her skull. Some of her hair tore out as he attached the lock, bracing the sharp object against her scalp as she tried to avoid the piercing spikes requiring her to open her mouth wide to avoid injury.

She had only seen this device used on one other woman; a woman that had broken up a marriage by spreading rumors that a wife had been committing adultery with a neighbor. On the night of the engagement to the subsequently widowed husband, she confessed her lie to the husband whose wife she’d slandered. The brank’s bridle was intended to muzzle a gossiper’s lying tongue, used in place of the also-feared ducking stool in more serious offences.

But I have not lied, she thought, and from the humiliation and a pierce in her tongue, tears ran down Rosaline’s face.

Blood trickled down her throat as she tried to swallow, as she tried to partially close her mouth, as her throat became dry. The bishop spoke of riotous women and lies and the Carnival’s desecration of the church.

He took her to the center of the square and locked her wrists to the ground at her knees. All night she was left there, and in the morning, she woke up as discarded food and feces were thrown by passersby. She could taste all of it, her mouth forced open and breathing everything around her as she choked on blood, vomiting up the Carnival’s toll.

The clergyman walked through the square that evening, pacing as he prayed. His hands were covered in Ash, but his face was wet. As he paced, she looked at him and realized that he was crying.

As she continually choked, he stayed there and prayed, but as the number of people diminished, as he came closer, he was not praying for her soul, he was praying for his own.

When it was dark a second time, she was released from the bridle by Carlyle, the Bishop’s attendant, and he did not meet her eye. He unlocked her chains, and threw her to the ground harshly. She landed on the ground and resolved to lay there, in her own vomit and squalor until he was far from the square.

She struggled to stand, happy that only the blind and beggars were still in the square. She crawled toward a post to attempt to prop herself up. As she began to swoon, two hands caught her shoulders.

The clergyman exited the shadows and took her to water. Neither said a word.

She resided in the basement of his church a few day as she regained strength, starting to help with daily chores and preparation, but never spoke to him. The only one she spoke to was in prayer, and no one heard her prayers but God.

She prayed for a new life and to meet people of fair tongue and grace. She prayed for the clergyman to be a better example to the flock and for the forgiveness from her Father in heaven, from the bishop, from Carlyle, and especially from Lazaro.

When she regained her resolve, she left while he was sleeping. She desired to walk as far as she could from Venice. As far as her thoughts on the Carnival, Lazaro’s stories of the northern pancakes were not sounding so crazy anymore.

 

 

 


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L.K. Feuerstein is a Colorado native. She moved to Northern Colorado while obtaining her B.A. in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. She’s been writing stories and poems since she was ten years old and prefers to write in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and erotica genres. She was very excited to be included in a 2015 Wanderer’s Haven Publications title A Mythos Grimmly, a collection of H.P. Lovecraft inspired fairy tales. She is currently working on two books, a horror called Blood Valley (WT) and a fantasy called The Waterfall Mentor (WT), drafts expected to be completed in 2016.

photo credit: Carnaval Venise – Corbeil Essonne-216 via photopin (license)

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6 Comments

  1. Well THAT went some places I wasn’t expecting.
    I loved the fact that Rosaline couldn’t speak without dropping the mask. There’s something wonderfully evocative about that, though I can’t be certain exactly what is being evoked.
    The ending felt a little abrupt to me, (though I did like that Rosaline finally found the freedom she was searching for), and there were several characters mentioned in the beginning that I couldn’t quite keep straight in my head.
    However the use of historical details really help to ground the narrative, and it shines a light on a fascinating (and in many ways barbaric) period of history.

  2. This had me very much in thrall throughout. The writing was great, we’re put inside the protagonist’s head and given wonderful worldly details. I know very little about Venice, especially at this time period, but I’m more than happy to accept everything written here as spot-on because it was spoken with such authority and calm.
    The mask, the Carnival, the betrayal, the torture, was all really well done, if not fairly squirm-inducing in the right ways. But then we’re just let off the hook! She sleeps for a few nights in another church and starts cracking jokes about pancake runs. I dunno, that felt a little flat to me and with all the great tension and build-up I was really looking for a more concrete resolution to our character’s inner conflict.
    Still, excellent writing and a damn fine entry.

  3. The prose is so pretty and contrasts the content very well. This story went to some dark places but it never felt vulgar. Hard to do that when you have a story with elements like this.

    I’ve also always enjoyed the schism between protestant and catholic. Excuse me while I go listen to Prophets of Doom from Hardcore History.

    I think the only thing I wasn’t a fan of was Lazaro, but that might be because he was a jerk. I always have a hard time understanding hardline people but they do exist. This is more of a personal problem than a critique.

  4. I’m not sure what I’ve just read.

    I was seduced by the careful build up, which piled on sensation after sensation from the glass mask to the perfume to the abandonment of Carnival, and while that felt dark, and even oppressive in places, it was a kind of warm oppression. Comfortable, in the way that an over-heavy blanket can be. And then it was the cold light of the next day and everyone but Rosaline woke up ashamed.

    I really wanted her to fight back. I really wanted her to not acquiesce to her treatment, and I’m kinda mad at LK for not letting her. But I sort of get it, because I’m a Medievalist and this is sort of in keeping with a mindset I’ve read about. The one that allows the oddest stuff to happen because “that’s how it is”.

    That was deep, and uncomfortable, and a little bit hypnotic. Excellent.

  5. Rosaline’s passion for detailing her mask feels very innocent and disturbing at the same time. Her detached-ness does lead you to know that her story will eventually go into dark places and this foreshadows the tone well. It’s as if she’s spending a lot of energy being introspective, which makes her a leaf in the wind for outside pressures.

    The other characters all seem very vile and I find it difficult to understand where they’re coming from. There’s a definite contrast between them and Rosaline, but at times I wanted to see a more nuanced behavior. The story flows in a rather linear fashion and I’d love to see a second layer to this.

    I have to give credit for depiction of molestation and torture. It’s done in a very seamless fashion. The author’s voice lulls you, though at times I wanted a change of pace and for the prose to slap me out of it.

  6. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    This is a brilliant orchestration of so many senses. Doc’s comment above used the word “hypnotic”, and I agree. This was beautifully written, and even though it went into very dark and disturbing places, the way it did so was conveyed with a deftly hypnotic use of language. This was a powerful piece to read. Very well done.

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