The City of Masks

In the time that I wandered, I happened to pass through Maimat, the City of Masks.  Coming down the high road, and having left behind the chill wind that scoured it, I reached the eastern gate only to be stopped by a guard who spoke to me with averted eyes.  “You must have a mask to enter the city,”  Gesturing blindly behind him, he said, “You may choose one of these if you have none of your own.”

Hanging in rows on a rack behind him were masks of thin leather, molded to the forms of animal heads.  He himself wore something more ornate, with the aspect of a tiger, though he was slight of build and his voice was quiet.

I remember smiling.  It seemed so foolish to put on a mask when I could become the animal itself, but the sounds of a festival poured through the gate and I had been travelling alone for so long that I craved revelry.  A giddy impulse made me select the hawk mask and I passed through the gate and into the river of people dancing their way toward the city’s center.

I stopped at several inns before I found one that had a room available, a small cell tucked under the eaves of the tile roof without even a window to brighten it.  A low table sat by a pallet and as I lit the tallow candle I could see that the innkeeper must have cleared out a storage room to make the most of the festival trade.  Still, it suited me, for the weather was mild and here I would not freeze or wake up damp with dew, which made for a pleasant change.  So I put on my best clothes and climbed back down the narrow wooden stairs that wound around the hearth of the common room.

On my way out the door, the innkeeper grabbed my arm.  “You will want a proper mask for the festival,” he said in a pleading voice.  “My cousin runs a shop just two doors down, you see, and he will advise you well and has the best assortment in the city.”

“The hawk suits me,” I replied, preferring to spend my money on food that had not spent a week in my pack.

“Oh, indeed, and most appropriate for a stranger, who but flies in and out of our city, but ‘tis a stranger’s mask, you see, and so plain and this is the Festival of the Sun, the most important of our festivals, you see.”

I assured him that I would get a proper mask and let him assume that I would visit his cousin, though only to escape his grip and the sound of his voice.  Yet once in the street again, I felt odd in my borrowed face.  It had suited me coming into the city, for the dust on my riding clothes had already marked me as a traveler.  Now, I found myself the object of unwanted scrutiny and thought to follow the innkeeper’s advice.

In the marketplace that surrounded the Council Hall, I found a mask seller’s shop.  Not a hard task, for every other stall boasted at least a small selection, but this one was nearly empty of customers, though the masks on display out front were the best I had seen.

The inside was dark, so I left the door ajar when I entered.  The walls were covered with masks of every kind.  Paper maché, molded leather, like the one I wore, and carved masks of rare woods, the details picked out with delicate inlays.  A smirking ebony cat caught my eye.  I pulled it from the wall and walked to the door, marveling at the imperial jade eyes and mother of pearl whiskers.  The fine slivers of whalebone teeth were barely visible behind its self-satisfied grin.

“You flatter me thief.”  The voice came from the back of the shop.  “It is rare enough that I sell a mask, but do you desire it so much that you would take it without paying?”

“I merely took it into the light to see it better.”  I said, “I am no thief.”

“Curse me!” he replied, “Have I forgotten to open the shutters again?”

The shadowy figure moved along the wall of masks and opened the window that looked out upon the square.  When the light fell on him I saw that he wore the mask of a mole, with a knowing smile that seemed to say those blind eyes could somehow still see well enough.

“My apologies, gentle lady,” he said.  “I have lived so long in the dark that I sometimes forget.”

His hand brushed the counter as he walked toward me and reached out, his hand searching for the mask in mine.  “You like my cat?”  He asked when he had found and felt it.  “The old mouser was much put out with my constant touching, yet he was my favorite companion for many years and I did so want to capture his expression.”

“There is something of his grin in your own mask,” I said.  “Did you copy him or he you?”

The man laughed.  “Somewhat of both, I imagine.  We were much alike in that regard.”  He pointed to a shelf by the door.  “The foolish thing would sit there and swat at the customer’s masks as they came in.”

“And you?”  I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head.  “I make masks that do not hide what people are,” he said.  “It comes to the same thing in the end.”

“That would seem to defeat the purpose.”  I said, yet I could see what he meant, for all the animal faces that lined the wall had undeniably human expressions.  For every mood, for every virtue or vice, some appropriate visage could be found.

“Aye, it does.”  He replied.

“Then why make masks for a living?”

“My customers have their purposes and I have mine.”  He replied.  “Which, I suppose, is why I am so poor.”

He gestured around the walls of the shop.  “See?  You are my first customer of the day, when other mask makers have sold most their stock and are already thinking about closing up to join the celebration.

“Your accent is strange,” he said, after a moment, “so I presume you took a mask at the gate.  May I touch it?”

I removed my mask and placed it in his hand.

“Hawk, is it?”  He asked, then quickly returned it.  “But you must put it back on.  Before someone sees you.”

I set the mask back over my face.  “Why such a rule?  Has it something to do with the festival?”  I asked.

“Indeed, no.  This is the City of Masks.  Surely you knew that?”

“Nothing beyond the tales I’ve heard from traders,” I replied.

“We always wear masks here, though the reason for it is lost in time.  Some great fright, I think, that started the habit, but now ‘tis vanity that keeps the tradition alive.”

“Vanity?” I asked.

“To be what we are not.”

“And vanity is not one of your faults,” I said.

He stiffened for a moment.  “Your sarcasm falls wide of the mark, my lady.  I would hardly call it vanity, that I do not choose to hide my blindness.”

“I meant only that you choose to emphasize it,” I replied.

“I value honesty, my lady,” he said.

“Is it dishonest to portray what we would wish to be?”

“You wish to be a hawk?” he asked.

I laughed in spite of myself.  “I have been a hawk, my good mask maker,” I said.  “For longer than I wished.  No, my choice of masks was … a remembrance.”

He was silent a moment.  “You are a shapeshifter then?”

I do not know why I had acknowledged this.  Shapeshifters are often feared and tend to secrecy.  Perhaps it was because he too was an outsider of sorts, he would know what it meant.

He laughed.  “And they made you wear a mask!” he said, and then asked.  “May I touch your face?”

I remember shivering when he touched me, as if the gentle brushing of his fingers could tell him more about me than sighted eyes.

“Tell me, my lady.  What do you look like, really?”

“This is my true shape, my soul-shape.”  I replied, and waited for the inevitable question.

“But how do you know?” he asked.  “If you can be anything, then how do you know?”

I thought for a moment.  It is a difficult thing to explain, how the body simply knows.

“I know this is my true shape because I’m not trying to be what you see.  This shape comes from someplace deeper.  We call it the soul-shape.”

“Then why change at all?” he asked.

It was my turn to shrug.  “Sometimes, because it’s useful. Sometimes for fun, but I have learned something from every form I’ve ever taken.”

He chuckled to himself.  “I know the mask I will make for you, but it will take some time.  Borrow one of these for the festival and I will send for you when it’s done.”

I took the cat mask for the festival and the innkeeper was right.  People pointed at me and laughed, as if they shared the secret of the grin and many asked where I had gotten my mask.  I laughed and danced my way through the festival, and wandered the now peaceful city for several days after, until the innkeeper told me that the mask maker had sent word.

“Ah, you’re here!” the mask maker said when I brushed his shoulder and announced myself.  “Come in the back and tell me what you think.”

I removed the cat mask and placed it in his hands as he led me through the curtain that hid his workshop from prying eyes.

“I’ve missed him this last week,” he said, stroking the cat’s head and placing it on a shelf near the door.  “I do not think I will sell him.”

He touched my arm and ran his hand down to mine, leading me to a workbench.  “Here is your mask,” he said, pulling back a muslin cloth.

I froze.  The mask was of the thinnest leather, but covered in a fine reddish hawk down, though how he could have gotten the color so right was beyond me.  I knew that if I put it on, it would follow the smallest movements of my face, would become as alive as the woman who wore it.  Yet what frightened me the most was that it was both me and the hawk I had been.  How he had managed to capture the moment of transformation, I will never know.  Nor would he tell me which direction it was supposed to represent: woman to hawk or hawk to woman.

“You have been many things, my lady, but have you ever tried to be a shapeshifter?  What shape would your body take then, I wonder, and what could you learn from it?”

I remember my palms sweating and my heart pounding and that quivering in the bowels that warns of their loosening.  My mind went back to the days of my youth, when taking on another form was a secret joy, hidden even from my parents.  It flew past the years when I had been trapped in hawk form, a human mind preserved by magic jesses in mute and wordless frustration, and on to the lonely wandering that had been my life these past few years.  Not once in all that time had I known such fear.  When he placed it in my hands, they dried under its burning touch.

“Why do your hands tremble, my lady?” he asked.  “Surely you have known this moment enough times not to fear it.”

“It is a moment of pain, mask maker,” I said.  “And not something I care to dwell on.”

“Is it painful, then, to become what you desire to be?”

“No,” I replied.  “It is painful to change.”

I returned to the inn with the shapeshifter mask wrapped carefully in a linen cloth and wearing a chameleon mask of greenwood covered with translucent scales.  It was the only one he would sell me.  I let him have his little jest, though it stung my pride some.

For two days I sat in that room, both masks hanging on the wall where I could see them from the pallet.

We are always becoming, I suppose, changing from what we have been to what we will be, but change itself frightens us, shakes the foundations of our soul.  In those moments when we notice the change, we fear the abyss, the empty, yawning space of possibility.  We fear that we will fall into oblivion or, worse yet, that we will no longer know ourselves when we land, however briefly, on those small islands of certainty that lie hidden within it.

There are times, even now, when I curse the mask maker for handing me this challenge.  To set me wondering, for the rest of my life, what would it be like?  To become change itself.  I know this much: it would be lonely.  And I have had enough of loneliness.  I still have the mask, it is beautiful, but I have never put it on.