The Maskmaker’s Apprentice – a short story

Tazio Appiatavo was eager to start the first day of his apprenticeship at his Nonno Angelo’s mask shop, Many Cloaks and Daggers. He had been made to wait until his twelfth birthday, which felt like an eternity. He sat on the shop’s ancient oak front counter, a mug of cocoa in his hands, as he waited for his Nonno to finally make an appearance. Nonno Angelo Appiatavo insisted the shop would fall to pieces if he weren’t near at all times, and so he lived in an apartment on its second floor.

Whenever anyone asked how long Many Cloaks and Daggers had been there, Nonno Angelo would answer very proudly.

“It was old back when everything else was quite young,” Nonno Angelo would often say, smiling. “Back in the darker days, when the sky only had a few stars. I had to write the management a nice, but firmly-worded, letter to get a bit more light to work by each night.” Listeners would smile, nodding appreciatively, and invariably buy a mask by the tale’s end. Tazio didn’t know how much he really believed of what his Nonno was saying, but the conviction in the old man’s voice as he spoke made it very hard to doubt his words.

“Aha, my eager little early sparrow,” Nonno Angelo said as he slowly crept down the stairs into the shop. “It is but five o’clock in the morning. Please tell me you at least ate your breakfast. Your mother, you know how she gets. She will be the fury of the gods upon my house of heathens if I let you survive on sugary chocolate-water.”

Tazio looked down towards his feet. “But Nonno, I wanted to be here as soon as I could,” Tazio said. “Food can wait!”

Nonno Angelo clicked his tongue. He shuffled over to the counter and scooped Tazio up with ease, setting him on the floor.

“Your Nonna should have some cereal left,” Nonno Angelo said, smiling. “Not the sort of candy masquerading as breakfast you like. Go upstairs and eat. Your first day starts soon enough.” Nonno Angelo shooed Tazio upstairs to the apartment. Tazio moved as quickly and quietly as he could, retrieving a bowl, a spoon, and the milk in a flash. As he went to pour the cereal, he heard his Nonno call up the stairs, loud enough for him to hear but quiet enough it wouldn’t wake his Nonna.

“You mustn’t gobble down your food,” Nonno Angelo said. “The only true cure for a bout of early hiccups is a tremendous fright.”

Tazio clapped his hands over his mouth to stifle a gasp. “Yes, Nonno,” Tazio said. He forced a slower pace, urging himself to pretend he enjoyed the soggy cardboard with just a touch of brown sugar that his Nonna called cereal. He returned to the shop downstairs, only to see his Nonno had already started to set up for the day’s sales.

“Nonno, what will I learn if you do everything for me?” Tazio said, his eyes full of crocodile tears.

Nonno Angelo shook his head, smiling. “On your first day, you watch, you observe, and you learn,” Nonno Angelo said. “It’s tradition, and we must respect that.”

Tazio cocked his head, confused. “But Nonno,” Tazio said. “Wouldn’t I be observing by watching?”

Nonno Angelo raised a finger, his expression stern. “You can watch without observing, little sparrow,” Tazio said. “You must make use of all of your senses. Take in everything each potential customer is doing, and react accordingly.” The ancient grandfather clock, the one Nonno Angelo insisted had been carved from a branch of the World Tree itself, chimed to indicate it was only six o’clock in the morning.

“How many forevers left until we open for the day?” Tazio said, rocking back and forth on his feet.

Nonno Angelo checked his pocket watch, which was another treasure he doted over quite often. He’d won it from Death in a card game so old nobody remembered its name anymore, he would say, going on to explain how Death said the victory didn’t matter. In the end, the pocket watch would be Death’s anyway.

“In the closet under the stairs, there’s something to help you move time along faster,” Nonno Angelo said with a conspiratory wink.

Tazio raced to the closet, a grin plastered on his face, and flung the door open wide. He looked around the closet’s interior, the dim gaslights not easy to see by in the early morning gloom.

“Nonno, there is only a broom in this closet,” Tazio said.

“And a king’s ransom in dust on the floor,” Nonno Angelo said. “Let us make the shop more beautiful than the fairest of princesses for when our first customers arrive.”

“But Nonno, the days of princesses aren’t around anymore,” Tazio said, and was met with his Nonno’s disapproving gaze.

“There are princesses,” Nonno Angelo said. “Every single girl you meet is a princess, who is strong, and smart, and fighting her own dragons. You’ll do well to remember that. Now tend to evicting these dust bunnies before they make more of their kind.”

Tazio swept the floor in silence, scooping up great heaps of dust with the dustpan and emptying them down the garbage chute that, as far as Tazio knew, lead nowhere. Once the floor had been dusted to Nonno Angelo’s satisfaction, Tazio was set to work dusting the counters while Nonno Angelo dusted the masks.

“They are very fragile things,” Nonno Angelo said as he handled a mask depicting a man weeping endless tears of mourning. “You will know much about these by the end of today.”

“Why do people buy masks, Nonno?” Tazio said as he fought with a mighty spider’s web.

Nonno Angelo clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It was a noise Tazio had gotten used to hearing before a lecture.

“You must wait and see, little sparrow,” Nonno Angelo said. He finished dusting the last of the masks and smiled. “This magic is not something even my words can do justice.” The small silver bell in the doorframe announced the arrival of the first potential customer of the day. He was a young man, who looked to be no older than thirty, dressed in a crisp, new suit. Nonno Angelo looked from Tazio to the closet, and Tazio quickly put the broom back from where he’d retrieved it.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a sign saying if you were open yet or not,” the potential customer said, looking around.

“If the door is willing to open, I am willing to start the day,” Nonno Angelo said. Tazio smiled as he made his way behind the counter. He sat on the wooden barstool his Nonno used during slower days, or when his feet weren’t feeling cooperative with the rest of his legs, and he tried his best to watch, observe, and learn.

The customer looked relieved. “A friend of mine told me you sell the best masks in the world,” the man said.

Nonno Angelo smiled politely, waving his hands. “Goodness, your friend speaks very kindly of me. The masks are of a high quality, yes. Before we continue, may I ask your name? This is a very personal business, after all.”

The man opened and shut his mouth a few times, which looked to Tazio like a fish gasping for air.

“Stewart,” the man named Stewart, who was dressed in his best suit, said. “Sorry. I’ve never had any shopkeepers take the time to ask me my name before.”

Nonno Angelo reached out to shake Stewart’s hand. “We are all one great family basking in the sun’s warmth. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Stewart. I am Nonno Angelo.” Nonno Angelo nodded to Tazio, who stood up and extended his hand for a handshake as well.

“I am Tazio,” Tazio said. “Apprenticing here to learn from my Nonno all he knows about masks.”

“That’s very smart of you,” Stewart said.

“What sort of mask were you looking to buy today, Stewart?” Nonno Angelo said, still smiling.

Stewart looked around, nervous. “Well, my best friend is getting married today,” Stewart said. “He met the girl of his dreams, and they’re just so right for each other.” Tazio had heard stories like this before. If he had to guess, Tazio would have picked a mask to hide the jealousy Stewart was feeling over his friend’s marriage.

Nonno Angelo nodded as Stewart spoke, his hands folded on the counter.

“I’d like a mask to help show how happy I am for my friend and his new wife,” Stewart said. “I’m giving a speech, and I get so nervous. I’m afraid I’ll look unhappy the whole time. Oh god. Can you help me?”

Nonno Angelo stood up and placed his hands on Stewart’s shoulders. “As the moon covets the light and beauty cast by the sun,” Nonno Angelo said, “so I shall help you find a mask of joy and courage.” He shuffled off into a back room. Tazio smiled, shrugging to let Stewart know he wasn’t alone in not fully understanding Nonno Angelo’s words.

“Here we are,” Nonno Angelo said, shuffling out from the back room with a cloth-wrapped mask. “You must remember that only you will know this mask is on, and to react accordingly. Treat it with care, for these are very fragile things.” Nonno Angelo handed Stewart the mask slowly, with a great deal of deliberation to his movements.

Stewart accepted the mask, hints of tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. “Thanks so much,” Stewart said. “How much do I owe you, sir?”

Nonno Angelo hummed and hawed for a few moments while Stewart fidgeted in place.

“Consider it a gift,” Nonno Angelo said. “Under normal circumstances, I would charge an ounce of nostalgia and one happy memory. You are a kind young man. Well-intentioned. Please enjoy a glass of wine on my behalf at the wedding.”

“Thanks so much, sir,” Stewart said. “I’ll be sure to tell people about your store!”

Tazio looked to his Nonno, who had taken to wiping down the counter like bartenders from old television shows.

“Nonno, why did you not charge him?” Tazio said.

Nonno Angelo shook his head ever so slightly. “You will learn in time,” Nonno Angelo said, “that some people bring such a light to the world that we are only here to give them a little boost in the right direction. To charge him for his mask would be cruel.” Tazio opened his mouth to respond, but stopped when the bell above the door indicated another customer had arrived. She was short and portly, festooned in an elaborate and aged dress covered in feathers and sequins.

“Yes, hello. I am Madame de Chevellier,” the woman who went by Madame de Chevellier said, her nose upturned. “I need a mask, and in a hurry.”

Nonno Angelo extended a hand for a handshake, but de Chevellier ignored it. “And what manner of mask do you seek?” Nonno Angelo said.

“I need a mask to show my disdain for my ex-husband and his new wife,” de Chevellier said, her words full of venom. “He does not know the full extent of my disgust and outrage.”

Nonno Angelo reached beneath the counter, producing a mask covered in deep scarlet etchings with angry eyes and a sinister sneer.

“I believe this will be suitable for your needs, Madame,” Nonno Angelo said, nodding. “It will cost you the memory of true love’s first kiss, and three ounces of pride.”

The Madame de Chevellier glowered at Nonno Angelo. “And just how am I to provide those things?”

Nonno Angelo raised a hand to quiet her. “You needn’t worry about the transaction,” Nonno Angelo said. “I wish you a pleasant day.” The Madame de Chevellier gasped, staring at Nonno Angelo as he turned to dust off the wall of masks behind the counter. She turned, huffed loudly, and stormed out the door.

“She will learn,” Nonno Angelo said quietly, shaking his head. “She will regret her bitter spite in time, my little sparrow.” The ancient Grandfather announced the arrival of noon.

“Nonno, how did it become so late so quickly?” Tazio said, his head tilted.

Nonno Angelo patted his belly, which had rounded somewhat in his old age, and smiled. “I suppose I must admit I was a touch hungry for lunch,” Nonno Angelo said. “I believe your Nonna is making some sandwiches upstairs. Could you fetch us each one? There’s a young woman outside who is still debating if she should stop in or not, and it should give you enough time to make the roundtrip.”

Tazio nodded, turned, and jogged up the stairs. He didn’t want to miss out on any customers. His Nonna, Nerezza, stood just past the top of the stairs with two plates.

“Back to work with you, little sparrow,” Nonna Nerezza said. “Your Nonno is already anxious you will miss a visitor.”

“Thanks, Nonna,” Tazio said. He took the plates before carefully running back downstairs to Many Cloaks and Daggers. A young blonde, more beautiful than any girl Tazio had ever seen before, stood in the entryway of the shop. She wore a black dress, her eyes puffy and red. Tazio placed the sandwiches behind the counter, sitting back on the stool.

“Thank you, little sparrow. I was just talking to Elisabeth here about what kind of mask she would like,” Nonno Angelo said. “Elisabeth, this is my grandson, and apprentice, Tazio.”

Elisabeth sniffled quietly. “Nice to meet you,” Elisabeth said. She dabbed around her eyes with a monogrammed handkerchief.

“Very nice to make your acquaintance, miss,” Tazio said.

Nonno shook his head almost imperceptibly. “She is looking for a mask of strength,” Nonno Angelo said, his expression somber. “Perhaps you could find the right mask to help her situation?”

“My fiancé died very suddenly,” Elisabeth said, her eyes flooding with fresh tears. “I need to be able to stand strong for his family and our friends.”

Nonno Angelo nodded. “Very noble of you,” Nonno Angelo said. Tazio turned to the wall of masks. There were so many to choose from. His eyes darted from one side of the wall to the other, and he could feel his anxiety building.

Tazio took a deep breath, held it for several seconds, and exhaled slowly. As he scanned the wall, this time more slowly. One particular mask, with a strong chin and eyes focused on the horizon, stood out to Tazio. He grabbed one of the silk clothes from beneath the counter, hopped onto the stool, and carefully took down the mask.

“This one should do nicely, Miss Elisableth,” Tazio said.

“Thank you,” Elisabeth said. “What do I owe you?” Nonno Angelo and Elisabeth both looked at Tazio, waiting for a response.

Tazio tapped two fingers against his lips. “A dash of fond memories,” Tazio said, “and three unhappy incidents.” Nonno smiled, offering a thumbs-up. Elisabeth looked confused.

“Do not trouble yourself thinking about payment,” Nonno Angelo said. Elisabeth thanked them profusely, leaving quietly.

“A good choice,” Nonno Angelo said. He shuffled to the door and clicked the locks into place. “The mask was strong, yet caring. Perhaps a touch distanced, though. For your first sale, you did very well indeed.”

Tazio smiled, taking a bit of his sandwich. “I’m very excited to learn more, Nonno,” Tazio said.

“Very good, my little sparrow,” Nonno Angelo said, sitting down at the stool and picking up his sandwich. “You still have much to learn, and many more masks to sell.”

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