47: Mask

on August 7, 2007 in 02: Love In The Time Of Magic

In Which Mackenzie Explains

When I was little, my favorite feast was always Veil.

That was back when I lived with my mom, of course. After I turned nine, and I turned… well… I didn’t really have much do with feast days after that. My grandmother always said that the Feast of Veil was just a load of Arkanite heresy, anyway. That first year, it was awful for me to have to stay inside by myself while all the other kids in the neighborhood put on their masks and costumes and ran wild all over town.

The next year, I’d come to realize how terribly redundant it would have been for me to dress up as a monster.

But, from the time I was five… wait, no, is that right?

Five… six… seven… eight.

I’ve never really thought about it, but there were only ever actually four years where I dressed up for Veil. Shit, was that really all? It has to be, because before that I would have been too young, and after that… when I think about it like that… it’s like, I know I had nine years with my mother, but when you consider that I wasn’t old enough to remember much of anything before I was three, and it’s still kind of sketchy for a couple years after that, then that means I didn’t really have… I didn’t…

I’m sorry, I’m getting sidetracked.

It just seems like it should be more.

That’s all.

Anyway, my first year I was… as I believe every five year old girl in the entire Imperial Republic of Magisteria is required by law to be… a pretty pretty elven princess with a sparkly gown. The year after that, I was a mummer. When I was seven, I caught my first whiff of the real spirit of the holiday and tried to talk my mom into letting me dress up as something really scary. We ended up compromising on a bed sheet ghost.

When I was eight… the last time I ever dressed up for the Feast of Veil… I managed to hold onto my birthday money all the way through to the middle of autumn so I could buy a two silver fright mask from the corner apothecary. I couldn’t afford much else for a costume. So, I wore a gray sweater… my mom wouldn’t let me go out dressed all in black… and black tights, and had a great time.

The next day, I wrapped the mask up carefully inside the sweater and put it away in my chest to use the next year, figuring I could improve the rest of the costume if I didn’t have to buy a new mask. We never had a lot of money, so I figured out a lot about being frugal early on.

Everything changed for me before Veil came around again. When I went to go live with my grandmother, all of my stuff was packed into a cart at once… otherwise I don’t think something like the mask would have made it inside the front door. By the time I got settled in, I’d figured out quite a bit about what sorts of things grandmother would and wouldn’t tolerate in her house… about what she wouldn’t tolerate from me.

She didn’t find the mask the first time she went through my things, but then, she didn’t look too closely at any one thing. I think she was looking for a few things in particular, for signs of some kind. A folded-up sweater inside a chest just didn’t trip any alarms. When she was satisfied… or when she realized she was going to have to be unsatisfied… grandmother announced that she’d make full inspections of my room on a frequent but irregular basis.

The next time she was out of the house, I took the mask out of my chest and… realized I didn’t have anywhere else to put it. A folded-up sweater under my bed or behind the dresser would be checked. Later on, I’d learn that her house had a few little spots where I could stow things, but at that point I was alone in an unfamiliar place. The house was grandmother’s, and hers alone. Her hand had touched everything within it. Her eyes had gone over every inch of it on a daily basis. Her presence lingered everywhere. Even holding the mask in my hands felt like a risk, as long as I was inside the house.

I ran out the door with it, without having made a conscious decision to do so. The enormity of my action hit me a moment later. I’d been sworn never to go outside except in her presence, or with her permission. Having broken my word, I had to make it worthwhile.

My grandmother’s house was on a hill. An ancient-looking stone retaining wall kept her neighbor’s yard from tumbling into hers. In one place there was a gap of several inches beneath it, where the earth had somehow been washed away. I stuck the wrapped-up mask there. I couldn’t think of anything better to do with it… I knew it wasn’t an ideal hiding spot, but I figured I’d come up with a better one later.

The key thing was to get it out of my room before grandmother made her promised full inspection, because there was just no way I was going to let her take it.

That mask was the first real thing that I’d bought with my own money… I mean, not counting candy and drinks and stickers, and other things that you used up and then they were gone. Plus, it represented not one but two serious accomplishments: first, saving my birthday money for months to buy it, and then keeping it put away all year so it would be in good condition. That’s serious willpower, when you’re that age.

So I hid it, in the chink beneath the retaining wall, and then…. well, then I forgot about it.

Maybe that’ll sound stupid… maybe it’ll sound crazy… but maybe you’ll remember what it was like to be nine. I was in a new place, learning a new routine and all sorts of new rules. Then, school started, and of course, it was a new school, and there were all kinds of added security hassles because of what I was… what I’d turned out to have been. It was impossible to forget that, living in my grandmother’s house, but if I’d ever hoped to escape all that at school, I was disillusioned from the first day.

So, I forgot about the two silver fright mask until the first quarter of my fourth grade year was well underway, when the conversation turned towards Veil and what everybody else would be wearing. My first reaction was a stab of disappointment when it hit me that I would be stuck indoors all night, as there was no way my grandmother would take her eyes off me at such a wicked time… which turned to elation when I realized that of course kids would be wearing their costumes to school that day, and I still had my mask.

I ran to get it as soon as the coach dropped me off from school. It was a terrible risk, as I knew my grandmother kept an eye out for me every afternoon, but I figured I could run to the wall, pull the bundle from its hiding place, stuff it into my open book bag, and come inside. If my grandmother asked me what I’d been doing, I could just shrug and say nothing. That was the safest thing to do, because it wouldn’t be lying.

My grandmother had made it very clear to me, from the first day I was there, that I should never lie.

I knew as soon as I had my hands on it, though, that something was wrong. Had I expected the sweater to be pristine and clean as it had been in my trunk all that time? I guess maybe yeah, I did. In my mind, hiding it had made it safe.

But, the simple fact was that I’d left it out there too long, in the cool damp place between stone and earth. Looking back, I’m surprised it hadn’t simply washed out, or been dug out by one of the neighborhood dogs, or simply been spotted by my grandmother and disposed of earlier. If that had happened, I would have felt a pang of loss… or a crushing disappointment… but it still probably would have been better, in the long run.

My first thought, when I opened up the sodden sweatshirt was that the mask had somehow turned real… well, “come alive” was how I thought it, but those words didn’t really apply.

The black velveteen cowl looked like it had been eaten away by some kind of mold or moss. The blue-green paint on what had been a fairly smooth skeletal face had begun to chip and fleck away, exposing discolored patches between the cracked and shrunken squares that stubbornly held on. A puffy, green-white fungus had taken root around one of the sunken cheeks.

The eyes… well, the eyes had always been my least favorite part of the mask to begin with. They’d always looked rubbery and fake, and they had the little crescent shape cut around the top so you could see out of them, which just made the fake bulgy eyeballs hang forward. With most of the paint gone from them, though, and the underlying rubber twisted and misshapen, they looked… well, it wasn’t pretty, even before I saw something moving back behind them, something squirming in the opening which now well and truly resembled sockets.

I shrieked and dropped it. My grandmother came running up beside me in an instant. She must have seen me lingering by the wall, but she still moved remarkably fast. She gasped “Lord Khersis protect us!” when she saw the ugly, twisted, peeling face on the ground, but then she recognized it for what it was.

I braced myself for her reaction, but she didn’t recognize the sweater from my chest, didn’t connect the ghoul mask’s presence in her yard with me, the devil child in her home.

“Just some wicked mockery the neighbor boys have left out in the rain,” she said. “Leave it be, Kenzie… you don’t need to be gettin’ any ideas from this foul thing.”

She lead me back inside and then went out to dispose of the mask. I heard the lid slamming on the garbage can before she came back in, and I started to cry. I was still crying when she came back into the sitting room. For a moment, she had a look on her face that I didn’t very often see, and I thought she was going to say something to comfort me, but then she turned away and went about her housework. I heard her mutter something that might have been “perverse child” under her breath.

When you read a story, and somebody cries, it always tells you what they’re crying for. If this was just a story I was making up, I’d say I was crying because I’d lost my mask, or because I’d been frightened by its appearance, or because I’d lost my chance to participate in a small way in the Feast of Veil… and any one of those things would be true, but none of them would be the whole truth. Saying I was crying about all of them also wouldn’t be quite true.

Sometimes, I think that we don’t have the words to describe our real emotions. Emotions are too complex and abstract, and words are too simple and concrete. Maybe this is why people feel better when they have somebody to talk to… putting your emotions into words forces them to be smaller and simpler for a while… when you have to make them make sense to somebody who isn’t you, a lot of the conflicting parts just sort of fall away.

If you don’t have anybody to talk to, of course, your emotions stay huge and overwhelming.

Anyway, there wasn’t really anything that happened that day which should have been that big a blow to me. I’d lost my mother… my whole world… already. Looking back, as an adult, I can see how somebody telling this as a story might try to make it out that the mask was “one last piece of my old life, now gone forever”… but nine year olds don’t think like that. Nine year olds don’t feel like that.

When you’re nine, each fresh disappointment… each new injustice… is just as big and powerful as the last one. When I think about the first few years I spent with my grandmother, the image that comes back to me the strongest isn’t anything that she said or did, it’s that rotted and peeling mask, staring up at me with bugs coming out from behind its sightless eyes… remembered both as the precious treasure that had turned on me so horribly and the priceless relic I had destroyed through my own carelessness.

Why am I telling you this now?

I’m not really sure.

I guess I just want you to understand the part that happened next, after Amaranth went running away into the night.

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2 Responses to “47: Mask”

  1. beappleby says:

    I’d forgotten all but the general outline of this chapter, and I was surprised to read this:

    “Sometimes, I think that we don’t have the words to describe our real emotions. Emotions are too complex and abstract, and words are too simple and concrete. Maybe this is why people feel better when they have somebody to talk to… putting your emotions into words forces them to be smaller and simpler for a while… when you have to make them make sense to somebody who isn’t you, a lot of the conflicting parts just sort of fall away.

    If you don’t have anybody to talk to, of course, your emotions stay huge and overwhelming.”

    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that almost this exact same phrasing comes up much, much later. It’s good writing then, too.

    Current score: 0
  2. BMeph says:

    Aww, man, I Like the nick “Kenzie.”


    Current score: 0