"Archmime" was originally published in FreeFall Magazine.
The inky fabric was cool against the back of Francisco’s hand. It took into itself the only light in the small room and it’s blackness was unchanged to his eye. It dipped between the spaces of his fingers before he squeezed them together, crushing the fibers with arthritic knuckles. A few tired pops met the silence of the room.
“Are you pleased?” A small man, even older than Francisco, spoke from one of the corners.
“You’ve done well, Guilherme,” Francisco said, almost too quiet for the tailor to hear.
Guilherme, leaning in, nodded and released a small exhale, betraying his calm manner. “I am pleased to hear so. I know how important this is.”
“You have met the significance of the occasion with a garment that befits it, Guilherme. Thank you.” Francisco reached for the tailor’s shoulder and squeezed it lightly. “Do you remember the first robe you made for me?”
“It is embarrassing to think on now, Francisco.”
“It was a fine piece, Guilherme. You only think it embarrassing because of the quality you achieve now. If you were to live a second lifetime, you would find even this robe a disgrace.”
The tailor eyed the robe, indulged in a moment of admiration, and replied, “I think not. This is a perfect piece.” The old man smiled.
Francisco chuckled. “I suppose true masters only require one lifetime.” He sighed. “I’ll miss this, Guilherme.”
“As will I. Shall I send in the bereaved?”
“Give me a few moments to dress and then, yes, send them in one at a time.”
Guilherme nodded and left the room.
Francisco was alone now. Dust swirled aimlessly through the air around him like tiny moths propelled by Lisbon wind and sound. He looked to the high window punched into the brown stone wall near the ceiling. From the basement room he could see the ankles and shoes of men and women and children passing by as they walked the market along Campo Santa Clara. It began to rain and the feet, caught unprepared, scurried along, looking for shelter.
Francisco wrapped the dark robe around his body and it settled across his shoulders and fell across his chest, weightless. He turned and took two large strides from the tall mirror to the small table and took a seat in one of the two wooden chairs. The fabric stretched with his long steps and he relaxed into the cloth. He ran his smooth hands across the table to a mask, face-down, in the centre. He tugged at the loose fastening ribbon, bringing it within reach and, gripping its plaster edges, turned it over to face him.
The face of the dead stared blankly up at him. The eyelids had not been completely closed during its making and a thin white valley like a crescent moon lay between the unshut lids. It unsettled him. He flipped the mask over and fit it to his face. It glided across his cheeks easily and his forehead and nose and mouth filled the mould. He tied the ribbon in a too-tight knot behind his head and donned his wide-brimmed, flat-top hat.
The death mask kept all light from his eyes; he would be completely blind during his performance. He felt a moment of anxiety when he reached out for the table and felt nothing but air, but a quick adjustment had him find it again and pushed the worry from his mind.
There was a knock at the door.
Francisco cleared his throat. “Enter.”
A young man poked his head into the room. “Senhor, it is Miguel.”
Francisco waved him in and motioned to the empty chair.
Miguel took a seat. They listened to the rain for several moments. Then he shifted his position as if to ready himself and said, “My mother, my whole family, is honoured that you will be at my father’s funeral.”
“Thank you, Miguel, but I will not forget that it is not my day, it is your father’s.” Francisco’s voice cracked. “I am sorry, my voice has been hoarse for several days.”
“I have only ever known one Archmime, my father. I hear you are the very best.”
“I am now also the very last,” Francisco said with a warm smile he hoped was noticed through the plaster of the mask.
They were quiet again. The rain splashed onto the street above.
“Do you know what an Archmime does before a funeral, Miguel?”
“Not really. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t take an interest in my father’s work.”
“I will meet with you, your sister, and your mother, and you will each tell me the one thing about your father that you will never forget. And from those qualities I will perfect an impression of the man that I will perform at the head of the funeral procession from this spot, through the Feira da Ladra, to the Church of Sao Vicente of Fora where the ceremony will take place.”
Miguel swallowed hard. “Senhor, can I ask why you do this?”
“To remind all in attendance of your father in the physical way that he no longer can. I am a final image for those who were not able to imprint one on their minds before he passed.”
“No, sir, you misunderstand. I mean, why do you dedicate your life to this, impersonating the dead?”
Francisco ran his hand across the grain of the wood table. “I suppose I was never any good at anything else. Miguel, do you know how you would like your father to be remembered?”
Miguel nodded. “I do.”
“I do not know how you will do these things.”
“That is my worry, not yours. Tell me.”
“When I was a child, my father and I would run through the narrow streets of Alfama. He would chase me like an animal and I would hide in every doorway and alcove I came across. It was for fun, but it scared me too. That mixture of excitement and fear, it is why I am a matador. It is why I do not fear having lost my father because I will see him again and again in the arena. The crowds will cheer my name and they will applaud a thousand moments of my father rushing past me, searching and searching but never finding me. It will be like in Alfama, always.”
Francisco breathed in deeply. “But you must kill the bull in the end.”
“I do. And that is me letting go of my father. I will celebrate his life and remember his death every time I fight. It is a morbid thought to many, but I know death differently than most. It is a most pleasant thing to me. I’m sorry if this is not appropriate.”
“Miguel, it is a perfect memory. Watch for me in the square as I lead your father’s procession. You will feel the secret streets of Alfama. You will see your father as you did a child again.”
“Thank you, senhor. I will get my sister.” Miguel stood, paused briefly in front of the mirror, and left through the door he entered by.
There was a knock a few moments later and a small girl, twelve years old, her hair unkempt, wild, the ends of which arched out at odd angles like brown lightning, stepped into the room. “May I enter?” she asked.
“Of course,” Francisco waved her in and motioned to the chair opposite him the same way he had Miguel.
She took two large strides into the room and jumped onto the chair. She stared at him without speaking, without moving.
“Does the mask frighten you?” he asked.
She nodded, then followed it with a sound of agreement when she realized he could not see her.
“I apologize. I need you to see me as your father. It will help with my work,” he said.
She didn’t respond.
“Do you know why you’re here, Babetta?”
“To tell you a story,” she whispered.
Francisco nodded quickly, trying to shake the menace from the mask for the young girl.
“I don’t have a story. It’s just something he said to me once.”
“What was it, child?” Francisco asked before clearing his throat, his voice still gruff.
“He found me in my room crying once. I was sad because my brother was leaving on a short trip. It was only three days but I was little and I thought he was leaving forever.”
“What did your father do when he found you?”
“He sat on the floor beside me and asked me why I was crying. He said, ‘Babetta, you cry because you are afraid of being alone. You cry because you are human and you love your brother and you love your family, but you are afraid that if Miguel can leave, then we might also leave.’”
Francisco moved his hand across the table again in a wiping motion, pushing invisible crumbs into place. “Was he right?” he asked.
“He was, but I was too young to understand him and he knew. So he looked at me and he smiled and said, ‘Babetta, I will tell you one secret that you must never repeat to anyone else but me.’” She sniffled and wiped her eyes.
Francisco reached to his chest pocket for a handkerchief before realizing he was wearing the robe. “Babetta, it is all right. I will tell no one else. Only you will know the truth of what he said to you when you watch me.”
He heard her breathe in, the air catching in her chest in brief staccato. She jumped from the chair and moved quickly to the door. Francisco heard it open, but she did not leave. “He told me, ‘Babetta, you will always be my favourite. You will always be my favourite.’ And I believed him and I have only ever repeated it to him.”
Then she left Francisco.
The rain had stopped. The sounds of animals, cows, chickens, rattled their way into the small room.
The final visitor opened the door without a knock. The wife of the deceased entered the room. Francisco stood. “Djanira, please,” he motioned to the chair for a third time.
She sat down, her heavy dress brushed noisily against the wood chair as she took her seat. “Archmime, you do my husband a great honour,” she said.
“You do your husband greater honour, Djanira. The children I have just met are thoughtful and wise and...my tailor, he tells me you expend great effort in the markets. You are well respected amongst the merchants of Alfama. I suspect you will not have trouble providing for your family.”
“No, I will not, but a family does not live on coin alone.”
“Of course not.”
“Archmime, I must confess I don’t recall my husband ever mentioning you. I was surprised to see your name in the letter he left us. He had no friends I was aware of.
Francisco placed his hand over his heart. “I was as surprised as you are. I had not spoken with him since we trained together. I must have made an impression for him to recall me so many years later.”
“Yes, quite an impression.” Djanira crossed her legs and the dress rustled again. She tapped her foot in midair; her ankle clicked each time. “I have thought about this conversation for days and I still don’t know how I would like you to honour my husband.”
“Your children have both told me stories of a man I wish I had known. You may do the same or you may share another detail. The way in which he walked, or spoke, a favourite turn of phrase, a particular movement, any detail that might help me bring him to life for you.”
She laughed quietly.
“Why do you laugh, Djanira?”
“I will tell you, Archmime, that he walked with the lightness of a man who was not married, he spoke with the ease and naivety of a man who had no children, and the only phrases he turned were tired aphorisms. He spun his hands when he spoke, twisted them at the wrist and flitted his fingers in a most unbecoming way. That is a man I do not wish to see brought to life.”
Francisco leaned back in his chair slowly; the wood creaked beneath him. He tugged on his hat, ensuring its position.
“The man your children spoke of left me with quite a different impression.”
“It was not fatherhood he failed at, but manhood.”
Francisco coughed, but his voice remained raspy. “Is this failure what you would have me project?” he asked.
“No. I just needed someone to know.” Djanira stood slowly and took small, quiet steps towards the door.
“You do not wish to add anything to the performance then?”
“My husband was a conflicted man, Archmime. I grieved the loss of our marriage many years ago. Today, at last, I want him to feel uncomplicated for the first and only time. That is my gift to him. The only gift he might have ever had use for.” She exhaled sharply. “Perform well.”
Then Francisco was alone again. He removed his hat and pushed the death mask up and let it rest in his thinning hair. Many feet crowded near the small window above him. A slow, silent mob of black filled the square outside.
He stood and faced himself in the mirror again. He adjusted his robe, relaxed his body, breathed deeply. He smiled at himself.
“The last Archmime,” he whispered, his throat no longer scratchy.
By the time he left the room and ascended the stairs to the street, the casket had already been positioned to begin the procession. Grey clouds threatened the quickly drying streets and a cool wind slid through his robe.
Francisco pulled the death mask over his face and repositioned his hat. He took two long strides from the doorway and the crowd noticed his presence and parted for him. He was blind now but he had walked this path a hundred times, a thousand times.
It was twenty-seven paces in a straight line to the front of the procession. They would not begin until he took his position. The air became still as he approached the head of the column. The quiet rolled through the crowd like a blanket suffocating fire. He heard the men lift the heavy casket as he approached. There was a brief and hollow scrape as it left the stone street.
He put his head down and breathed deeply, letting the death creep into his bones, fill the tiny spaces between his joints and beat against the tiny bones in his inner ear. When he raised his head again he had transformed in the eyes of all around him. It was a subtle effect, but convincing. The body inhabiting the disguise was gone, only the deceased remained.
He stretched his arms out wide and began to spin in wild circles; he lunged towards the crowd and they recoiled, then began to laugh. He echoed their chuckling with his own high-pitched tone. He began speaking gibberish and threw his hands out in a most unbecoming manner. He ran circles around the procession, transforming mourners into revelers. By the time he had reached Feira da Ladra, the crowd had tightened around the procession and he jumped freely into their arms and they pushed the blind fool back into the middle before he ran to the opposite side and did the same.
Francisco felt the swell of the crowd around him; they were enraptured by his performance. He danced across every stone; he touched every inch of the square and every struggling weed between the rocks knew his presence.
“Point me towards the family!” he shouted and one of the mourners gripped him by the shoulders and aimed him towards the mother and her two children. He knelt down on one knee and placed a hand to the dusty stone. He grunted as a wild boar and charged the trio.
With each step he transformed from the jester, from the fool, from the most unbecoming, to the exciting, to the loving, to the feared. The crowd cheered him on as he closed the gap between himself and Djanira, Babetta, and Miguel. He heard Miguel’s laugh, deep and excited. The young man clapped his hands together.
Francisco continued his rush towards Miguel and at the last moment stood upright and spun gracefully towards Babetta. The black cape rolled outward from Francisco’s body and stretched around the young girl, hiding them both from the gaze of the mob. He reached out to her and he felt her sweet grip on the tips of his fingers. He held the pose until she released him. She laughed through her sobs.
Francisco spun and ran back to the centre of the square to prepare himself for the final act. He crossed back in front of the procession. The sky had blued and the sun warmed his neck. The energy of the crowd filled him and he felt, at last, uncomplicated.
The moment did not last. In his ecstasy, he lost focus, and his foot caught an upturned stone and he fell forward in a whirl of black silk and pooled into a mass in front of the procession. His jaw connected with the stone first and the death mask snapped; its rough edge caught his lip and hot blood pumped into his mouth and spilled to the street. He lay still.
The men carrying the casket did not see the fallen body in time and the two men at the front tripped over Francisco’s arms and legs. With their balance broken, their grip faltered. The casket fell to the earth and the impact split the wood. The lid fell open and from inside poured dozens of sizeable stones. They struck the ground beside Francisco with a quake he felt from inside his own chest.
The carousing stopped. The crowd returned to their quiet. The remaining pallbearers let down the rear of the casket. It was all gasps and murmurs now. Francisco remained motionless with half of his face pressed against the dirt beneath him.
“It’s full of stones!” one shouted.
“Where’s the body?” another asked.
The mob pushed closer and soon Francisco, completely ignored, saw dozens of feet stamping around him, voices clamouring to see the evidence with their own eyes.
It was then that Francisco, confident he had become irrelevant to them now, pushed himself up and with the one eye he could now see with, made his way to the shadows of a narrow Alfama passage.
He stayed there for a time and watched the crowd in secret. He saw Djanira, staring coldly at the din around her. She clutched Babetta to her side whose face was expressionless. Miguel sat in the dusty street beside them. Wind whipped his hair around his stretched face.
“Goodbye,” Francisco whispered.
A small figure approached from the end of the street. He pulled two horses behind him. The beasts made little noise, their hooves muffled by grass growing over stone.
Francisco approached the man and the shadow slid from his face. “Guilherme. I was wondering if you might not make it.”
“The horses were less than cooperative,” Guilherme said.
The two men threw their arms around one another. He was small and his head barely reached Francisco’s chin.
Guilherme cast his gaze to the slowly dispersing mob, the distraction of scandal now waning. “I see the procession did not go as planned?”
“I tripped near the end. They discovered my body was not in the casket.”
Francisco mounted one of the horses, as did Guilherme. The two men turned their backs to the thinning crowd. They nudged their horses forward, pushing them towards the very edge of Lisbon and beyond.
“Do you have any regrets?” Guilherme asked.
Francisco looked over his shoulder to the small man, then back ahead. “Only that I do not have two lifetimes.”