Sipping a cappuccino and nearly finished with a profoundly underwhelming lunch, Phillip Serra gazed up at the Colosseum of Rome. From his plastic patio furniture throne, he calmly surveyed the battle lines laid out before him. Gladiator-costumed picture props, spray painted living statues, and twisted dirt streaked wretches meekly shaking metal cups; All vied, for his attention and more importantly, for the conspicuously miscounted change from his lunch. His servant, a surly snack vendor with a pronounced change counting impediment, stood nearby awaiting his beckon. From the tour he’d completed earlier, he knew this ruined but still glorious arena had once hosted macabre battles between men and beasts, victory parades celebrating merciless conquests, and gruesome executions stylized after mythological tales. Fleecing tourists was certainly harmless comparatively. Less awe-inspiring, however, he decided. He also idly wondered how much a stale salami sandwich had cost at a crucifixion.
At the approach of a spindly old man he took to be a beggar, Phillip instinctively reached back to pat the wallet in his back pocket. The wallet held just a few 5 Euro notes, and a transit card. It was a decoy for pickpockets. On the advice of his co-workers, everything of real value was uncomfortably stuffed in his front pocket, or had been left in the electronic safe in the closet of his hotel room, with the nigh unbreakable cipher of 8-3-2 (his room number reversed). He had doubted the need for these precautions, but this was only his third day in Rome and he had already swatted away 2 pickpockets. He thought he had, anyway. He wasn’t sure, really. They might have just been strangers that had unintentionally jostled him in the dusty hot streets around the tourist traps he’d been hurriedly checking off his ‘must see’ list. If so, his excited jumps and yelps were probably overreactions. You could never be sure, really.
Just steps away from him, the old man finally ceased his slow and seemingly pained progression, looked up, and with a smile and a nod, straightened up and brought out a sack lunch from inside his coat. “È il banco aperto?”, the man gestured towards Phillip inquiringly. “No,” Phillip replied helpfully, “I work for the U.S. military.” The old man inclined his head briefly in the universal gesture signifying “Whatever”. With that as their introduction, he sat down beside Phillip. “Americano!”, the man said sagely after another awkward moment. He unwrapped a severely crushed sandwich he had fished out of his crinkled and oil-stained paper bag. Phillip nodded his head helpfully, and attempted to find interesting things to stare at in directions that didn’t encourage further stilted conversation.
After a few moments, the vendor that had served Phillip wandered over to bring the old man a coffee. The old man fumbled briefly in his pockets for money, but the now ultra-respectful vendor waived him off with a smile and a friendly “Non necessario!” The old man nodded, and as if just remembering something important, brought his hand out of his pocket holding a small clay disk. He insisted on showing it to Phillip, who would rather have continued watching the ants crawling around his shoes. “La Bocca”, the man confided, leaning in conspiratorially towards his new American friend. The disk depicted a stylized face, a godlike countenance with a wild beard, wide eyes and an open mouth. To Phillip’s admittedly untrained eye, it had the look of something handmade, rather than a mass produced trinket. It looked vaguely familiar too, and Phillip thought he had probably seen a brochure or sign for whatever it symbolized sometime since his arrival in Rome.
It was just the sort of thing he liked to collect on these trips, and he briefly considered offering to buy it. Before Phillip could string together the words and the bravado to ask, however, the old man had finished his sandwich and coffee. Crumpling the bag back into his coat pocket, doubtlessly to be recycled for tomorrow’s lunch, the old man rose. Gesturing at the gratis coffee cup and the vendor, he conveyed a request for Phillip to return his cup to the cart for him. Phillip nodded affirmatively, happy to help the cheerful old fellow. When the man pressed the small disk into his hand, Phillip tried to object, but the old man was insistent. Finally, Phillip acceded gratefully. As he finished the last sip of his cappuccino, he watched the old man totter slowly away until he was lost in the crowd.
It wasn’t until he’d risen to return his plate and the cups to the lunch cart, that he realized the wallet in his back pocket was gone. Amusement quickly overcame a brief flash of annoyance. He looked again at the small token left by the old man. He thought wryly that the old man could probably use the transit pass more than he, and that the few euro were worth a good story. He asked the cart owner about the old man, out of curiosity more than any intent to seek justice. Not surprisingly, the vendor expressed complete ignorance. Chuckling to himself, he finally showed the small clay disk to the server. The merchant pointed vaguely back towards the direction that Phillip knew led to the Tiber River, and with no other destination in mind, Phillip headed off in that direction.
After less than a mile, Phillip noticed a tourist direction sign bearing a reasonable likeness of his souvenir. It pointed the way to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It didn’t take long to reach his destination. A small line at the entrance gave him time to read the placard at the entrance, conveniently translated to many languages, including English. The symbol, he learned, was ‘The Mouth of Truth’, a pre-christian shrine, drain cover, or fountain head, depending on the theory you chose to believe. It was said to depict Pan, a local River God, or Oceanus, a shared Greek and Roman personification of the Sea. At some point, the curious folklore had arisen that it was something of a divine lie detector test. Ever since, giggling tourists had made it a point to stick their appendages into the mouth of the mask to dare the gods to punish their lies by chopping their hands off.
The ‘hand in the hole’ trope was familiar to Phillip from many books and movies. He marveled at this chance opportunity to participate in a ritual connected to everything from a one-handed Norse God, to references in Dune and Flash Gordon. Waiting his turn, he made his way slowly toward the mask, watching group after group posing for pictures. By custom, he noted that single travelers could ask the next group in line to take their picture as they mimed the moment of horror when their hand would suddenly be amputated. It seemed like a bizarre, but entertaining form of horror karaoke, and he was eager to take part.
Reaching the front of the grotto, Phillip cued up the camera app and handed his phone to the stranger behind him. On a last minute whim, he fished out his ‘Bocca’ token. Smiling like the damn fool tourist he knew that he was, he rested the token on his palm and on the signal from his cameraman, inserted his hand. Once the picture was taken, Phillip reached to retrieve his phone. To his surprise, however, he found that he could not remove his hand from the mask. Smiling nervously, he grunted and tugged, looking intently at his hand. Nothing appeared amiss. His hand lay within the mouth of the mask, and the token still rested on his palm. No machinery had crashed down upon his hand. No teeth had sprung from the mask to hold him fast. He simply could not pull it free.
At first, the line behind him took in the scene with amusement. He was not the first person in line to add a bit of extra flair to their moment at the mask. Soon, however, annoyance crept into the faces of the others waiting in line. “Enough.”, they conveyed in various languages and other sometimes cruder forms of expression, “Your turn is over”. As panic began to creep into him, Phillip noted with alarm that while he felt nothing from the tip of his fingers to the elbow, he could see that the clay disk appeared to now be glowing. Then, to everyone’s, and particularly his own surprise, his eyes rolled back up into his head and he collapsed.
Thankfully, as he’d feinted unconscious at the base of the mask, Phillip’s hand had slid down with the rest of him. Speaking with those around him when he awoke, he found that he had not gone unconscious for long; Long enough to freak everyone out considerably, but not so long that authorities were called. A helpful Samaritan from the line assisted him in making his way into the church itself, where a polite but disinterested clerk assured him that it was likely just a touch of heat stroke. It happened all the time, and he should really just sit, drink some water, and rest for a few moments. Once he was reasonably sure he wasn’t going to be doing anymore unplanned floor bouncing, he thanked everyone, collected up his things and headed out to find a cab that could take him back to his hotel.
All of his belongings, including his phone, turned up unscathed, with the lone exception being the now mysterious token given to him by the old man. It was nowhere to be found. He had no idea if it had simply rolled away, or been collected by one of the other tourists who witnessed his collapse. Either way, it was gone, and with it, any reasonable chance to conduct any further investigation. He had no plans to go anywhere near the Mouth of Truth again. “Heat stroke”, he told himself, but he wasn’t able to completely convince himself. It was this point that he absently patted his back pocket, and found that his decoy wallet had returned. Scanning it quickly, he found that all the euros were there. Only the transit card was gone, and the small clay token was neatly tucked in its place.