MASQUERADE I

I want to tell you a story, Benjamin Farrow.

When I was a boy, my father threw the most wonderful Halloween parties every October. The basement of our estate was a vast, gloomy space, perfect for affairs of candlelight and wandering in the dark. The walls were painted in grotesque murals of witches and scarecrows, jack-o-lanterns and ghosts. In the weeks leading up to our annual Halloween soiree, servants would transform the rooms beneath the manor into something both ghastly and delightful. Garlands of black paper cut in the shapes of bats were hung from the doorways and ceiling, pumpkins grown and carved, candles placed on every surface and in every sconce. Every inch of the manor basement would be festooned in garish tribute to the monstrous.

The spiderwebs were natural.

Every year, as a special treat for me and my sister, Father commissioned an artisan to come to the estate and create masks for us. My sister favored animals. One year she was a cat, the next a wolf. As the years passed, the shelf above her bed became a gilded menagerie. Each mask was brightly colored and veined with glittering silver or gold, adorned with feathers or bells. They were fairy tale representations of animals, and yet, when Isabelle wore them, they seemed startlingly real.

As for me, I did not ask for animals. I asked for characters. Italian mask-makers can capture the human face in a way that allows us to behold the strangeness of our own design. We are all grotesque, and the arrangement of human features fascinated me. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth. It is the same formula with infinite variation. One year, when Isabelle asked for a tiger mask, I waited my turn, then went up to the artisan and asked for a human mask.

That’s weird, Castile. That’s a weird thing to ask for.

I suppose I was a strange child. The artisan, however, did not even blink at my request. He asked me what sort of human mask I would like.

“You’re making my sister a tiger mask,” I said. “Give me a human mask.”

There was a sparkle in his eye when I said this. I think he liked my request. So weeks passed, and when the artisan was done, my sister and I received our masks. Isabelle unwrapped her tiger mask from its paper and tried it on immediately. How fierce she looked. How pleased she was. It was elegant and violent, as majestic as a real tiger.

So I unwrapped my human mask.

My sister looked around at the sound of it hitting the floor and recoiled, as I had, with a gasp of horror. For a moment the two of us stared down at it in silence. Our tutor, who had brought us the masks, took one look at it and left the room to go straight to our father.

I knelt down and picked it up, ignoring Isabelle’s protests. I wanted to try it on. As always, the mask was molded perfectly to my face, and fit so well I hardly needed the silk tie to keep it from falling off. Peering through the holes in the mask, I turned around to face my sister.

Isabelle screamed. “Take it off! Take it off!”

I do not think she even recognized me in that moment, and there were only a few times afterward that I ever saw her so frightened.

Father gathered me, Isabelle, our tutor, and the Venetian mask maker all in his office and demanded to know why his money had gone to waste, why the artisan had given me such a horrible thing. The artisan looked afraid, but his voice was firm when he replied that he had only done what I had asked of him.

“Dear girl,” he said, addressing my sister, “would you show us your mask?”

When she held up the tiger mask, the artisan took it from her and showed it to my father.

“This is not a tiger,” the mask maker said quietly, “but when Miss Isabelle wears the mask, a tiger is what we see. A real tiger, however, would never be fooled by it. It would see only something pretending to be a tiger. Something profoundly not a tiger. What would the tiger think, in that moment?”

Nobody answered.

“I think it would be afraid,” said the artisan. “Deception is rarely benevolent.”

He gave my sister back her mask. “Next time,” he told me, “be specific.”

Father forbade me from wearing the mask to the Halloween party. I think he would have taken it from me if I hadn’t thrown a fit and begged to be allowed to keep it. Whenever he came into my room after that, I saw him glance over to where it sat on my bookshelf, and a shadow of terror crossed his face. He did not hire that particular artisan again.

And where is the mask now?

“Now” is such a tedious word. You would not be able to find it.

Why?

Because I had him buried in it.