The girl seemed invisible in the shadows of the rain swept sidewalks, and only the sharp click-click-click of her heels against the concrete revealed she was there at all. The silken raven hair and ass-tugging black skirt transformed her into the night’s sister as she sought the storefront shadows and the comfort offered there. Others were out tonight who dressed as she did, but their bodies belonged to the men who could afford to purchase them. She was not like these women.
With movements barely suggesting motion she drew nearer the neon sign that flashed ‘Ambrosia’ in pulsating crimson light while bleeding its color upon the rain-slicked sidewalk. Torn by forces that raged within the remnant of what used to be her soul, the girl moved in terse stop/starts toward the neon like a starving animal that has discovered a feast in the den of its enemy. But her thirst had become a hot bile in her throat, and she suffered an even stronger hunger. Thirst she could easily satisfy. The hunger was another matter.
Music pulsated below the street from the basement cavern, a throbbing yet beautiful riot of dissonance that seemed to invite the night’s shadows to enter and feel welcome. She needed the embrace of the darkness within this subterranean world, to lose herself in its symphony of chaos. And she needed to satisfy the aching hunger of a creature so utterly alone.
The girl descended the winding staircase into a blackness of which the only indication of light were the velvet shadows that danced upon the walls like phantoms. They undulated and embraced in silhouettes, washed over by a tidal wave of noise that seemed to come from inside her head. She wanted more than anything to melt into the darkness among the dancing apparitions, to be part of them, to belong.
The young woman felt the music, not with her ears, but with her flesh. Standing alone among the dark figures she swayed with the sounds of violins gone mad, lost in a swirling whirlpool of full volume sensation and warm desire. She hugged herself, in her blood feeling her body enveloped in the arms of a phantom lover as dark as the wall shadows, a lover who desired her and promised to protect her forever.
In that moment she felt an emotion that was more thoroughly alien than anything she had experienced in many months. She touched her long fingers to her lips to be certain it was there.
“You’re smiling,” a soft voice whispered close enough to her ear that she could feel a cold breath. “That must be good, of course. But you are smiling alone, and that must be bad.”
The stranger startled her, and she turned to see who had spoken, surprised to find that her eyes had adjusted so quickly to the darkness that she could see him almost clearly. Tall and pale with eyes of coal, handsome in a way not entirely masculine, he took her hand into his as if it were bone china. Although his touch was cold, she felt no desire to pull away.
“I don’t know why I was smiling,” she admitted. “I suppose I just like this kind of music, although I’ve never really heard anything like it before.”
“Sometimes it is best to follow one’s instincts,” he explained, and placed his arm around her waist.
The girl silently agreed. She followed her instincts - and the stranger - from the cluster of gyrating bodies as if she had fully understood this was what the man had expected of her. He led her to a small table still holding her hand, and despite the coldness of his touch she felt a flush of warmth, the same dizzying sensation she had felt upon first hearing the music. The man said nothing for several minutes, as if he were content just to stare at her. In a room filled with such ruckus, she heard only his silence.
“I’m Luna,” she finally said.
He smiled. “Luna. Yes, I like that. It reminds me of the moon.” In some better lit place such words might have sounded ridiculous. Perhaps tomorrow they would. But this was tonight and she did not care about the words because he was with her now and she was not alone
“It isn’t my real name,” she added. “I chose it recently because it seemed ... well, a whole lot more appropriate than Caroline. Tomorrow I may be someone else.”
“Names are unimportant. But should names be required, you may call me Andreas. Tomorrow I shall still be Andreas.”
The girl smiled. “It’s difficult to explain, but I feel like I no longer know who I am ... or what I may become.”
“Then you are going through some sort of change?”
He asked nothing more, as though there were no need for questions, only explanations. “We each have our secrets, Luna. And our secrets always find the darkness, just as you have found this place. But you have shared a secret with me, so may I share one with you? Do you see that woman’s portrait on the wall above the bar?”
Excepting the shadow people on the wall, the darkness on the far side of the room did not make it easy to see very much of anything. But the girl had no difficulty making out the portrait because it was so familiar. The woman in the painting was dressed in black, and she stared at the patrons of Ambrosia wearing the smile that had beguiled her admirers for centuries.
“The Mona Lisa,” the girl replied. “Yes, I was wondering about that. It isn’t the sort of thing you usually find in a place like this, is it?” This time she reached for his hand and held his fingers to her lips, surprised at her own sudden forwardness. “So tell me, Andreas. What is this secret you would like to share with me?”
He moved closer to her so that their faces almost touched, and clasping both her hands together inside his, whispered, “That painting is real, Luna. The one in the Louvre is a fake, switched with the one you see here many years ago. And, I am among the few men who know what is the secret behind that famous and beautiful smile, just as I know what is behind yours.”
The girl felt her mouth twitch into a smile at his seriousness. His statement was absurd, of course, and he could not have intended her to take him seriously. And yet his eyes were those of a man who knew a great many secrets.
“Thank you, Andreas,” she said, allowing her lips to curl into the full bloom of a smile without laughter. “It has been some time since a smile has come to my face, but you have managed to coax it out.”
“You have a beautiful smile,” he said. “Yet you keep it hidden.”
“I find few reasons to display it, Andreas. As you have said, there have been changes in me, and there are secrets I have preferred to keep. The Mona Lisa’s smile is probably a whole lot less complicated than mine.”
“Perhaps we can discover this for ourselves,” he suggested.
He shifted in his seat and studied the girl’s delicate face from varying angles as if he were examining the brush strokes and soft shadings detailed upon a canvas. Touching the girl’s cheekbone he leaned back, satisfied with his assessment.
“A woman’s smile reveals very little about her joy, yet so much about her sorrow. In yours I see the loneliness of a woman forced to walk the streets by night alone and afraid. I see a hunger for love that cannot be satisfied. And I see thirst that only blood might quench... “
Andreas’ words struck her as if he had given the girl a cold slap. He had torn the girl’s mask from her face and she felt naked before him, grateful for the darkness that concealed her from his stare, yet realizing the darkness did not matter because he could see through it just as he had seen through the smile that had exposed her. She might have cried, but she was as incapable of tears as she had been of laughter.
Andreas’ dark eyes refused to release hers, and his words now came in fierce stabs that pierced her heart. “Luna, long ago I also walked those streets. I know what it is like to quench my thirst with stray dogs and cats, or a random derelict whose blood tastes like piss. I have slept in the sewers by day so that I might feed by night. I too have experienced the agony of the lost lover whose kiss had condemned me to hell. And, like you, I once believed that the immortality of the undead was merely the exchange of one grave for another.”
The girl did not know whether to flee from the man in that same instant - to run screaming as she pushed her way through the dark lumps of couples inside this place and to disappear among the shadows of the street lamps - or to follow the pale stranger in worshipful silence wherever he led her into eternity.
“You see very much in a woman’s face,” she said.
“All women have the Mona Lisa in their smiles, Luna.”
“Then tell me, Andreas. Do all women have the vampire in their smiles as well?”
He held her face in his hands and lightly kissed her mouth.
“Only the most beautiful women. Let me show you.” He took her hand and walked with her to where the painting hung in its dark corner.
“Some say the wife of Francesco del Gioconda, the Mona Lisa, is the most beautiful woman in the world, Luna. If you will allow me to share another secret with you, I think you will see that we have much in common, and there is no need to play at foolish games. You see, I was alive when Leonardo da Vinci painted La Gioconda in 1505. The woman you see in this painting was my first lover, my only lover, ... that is, while I lived. Look at the painting, Luna, look closely at the real Mona Lisa, examine her smile, and tell me what you see.”
The girl studied the painting carefully but saw nothing different about the woman seated before the mountainous landscape of Florence. She wanted so much to believe the words Andreas had spoken, to see something - anything - in the heavily shaded portrait. But the Mona Lisa’s hands still lay folded upon her lap, her lips remained shut just as they had always been for almost five centuries. And her secrets remained sealed behind the same mysterious enigmatic smile.
“I’m sorry, Andreas. But I don’t see any--”
“Look more closely, damn you!” Andreas shouted. “See her with the eyes of the person you have become, Luna! See the woman’s smile through the same eyes that have seen into the darkness of the night!”
For a moment it seemed the woman’s eyes in the portrait shifted toward her, as if imploring the girl to see. Luna moved closer to the painting and examined the smiling face, studying every brushstroke of the lines of the aloof yet seductive mouth that curved so delicately where the beautiful Florentine woman’s lips met ...
... and suddenly she did see. She saw the woman’s lips part. She saw the mouth slowly open while the smile remained. And she saw the secret of centuries past that lay hidden behind the most mysterious smile in the history of the world.
... She saw fangs !
The music had stopped and the silence of a grave spread over the room. It seemed that every person in the place was looking at her. They had stepped close to the bar behind her to watch. She turned to them and spoke.
“I see ... I do see ... !”
Andreas was the first to applaud, and in the next moment the room filled with the thunderous sounds of hands clapping in approval.
Luna turned to Andreas and smiled, a smile punctuated by the curved teeth that had slowly elongated in each corner of her mouth and protruded over her lower lip.
“You are one of us now,” he said as he took the girl into his arms, whispering to her so that only she could hear. “... and you will never again have to smile alone,”
In the darkness of the night and surrounded by the applauding coterie of others like herself, the girl held fast to her new lover. Her smiling young face looked remarkably like the face of the beautiful woman whose portrait hung veiled in the shadows …
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.
Walter Pater on Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa