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Masks

The Looking Glass

A Short Story

“Don’t lie to me,”

the Snake Charmer spoke in a shrill voice, as the serpent coiled around his neck hissed and slithered menacingly towards me, and gliding around my neck, brought me uncomfortably close to his mystifying countenance. “Says Malcolm,” his voice, now deep and tranquilizing as if reverberating from the bottom of a well, reached my ears, the hair on whose ends were rendered to stand straight, by the icy touch of the serpent. A panicked breath escaped my lips and, entwining with his breath, dwindled into the air between us. His eyes, as unearthly and devoid of emotion as two freshly cut topaz gemstones glinting in the moonlight, stared piercingly into mine. With a perfectly chiseled Greek nose, and a small Athenian mouth he looked more like a most handsome sculpture than a human master of the six serpents coiled around his frame, and yet the same scar that marred my face ran over his, from a little above his left eyebrow, through his left eye, down to his narrow nostril, and marked an uncanny resemblance of his face to mine. 

Not more than a few hours back, I had been strolling pleasantly along a less familiar street. The sun lay half dipped in crimson clouds, like a gentleman slipping into a velvet evening robe.  Faint lights that seemed to turn now red, now green, and now blue, glimmered at a distance and caught my attention.

After traversing a few kilometers, I found myself standing in front of a towering and ornate wrought-iron gate, on which hung an enormous board, coated in fresh scarlet paint reading ‘Carnival of Rust’, and bordered by strings of lights that changed colors every second. The gate stood ajar, temptingly inviting me in, and after stealing a quick glance at my watch and finding it to be particularly past my curfew, recalling Father’s caning and rebukes, and contemplating over my decision for a couple of minutes, I, against my better judgement, slipped inside through the crevice. 

Opulent four-horse carriages were parked one after the other in a long file, as if the Horse Community had pronounced to leave the town with bag and baggage. Emerald green velvet curtains draped on both sides of the entrance to a tall building, gathering its folds on the red-carpeted stairs leading to the entrance.  On climbing the stairs, a child barely of about sixteen years of age, dressed in a frilled white and black striped shirt with loose folds collected over his chest, a purple waistcoat embellished with a gold chain laced around his abdomen, black, baggy trousers and green velvet boots, caught me by surprise and caused my heart to skip a beat,  when he jauntily greeted me almost by jumping at me.

His long flaxen hair with streaks of black and red, danced around his neck as he sang, “Welcome to the Carnival of Rust!”. Over both his eyes shapes concurrently resembling a diamond and a tear drop were painted in blue, all the way down to his cheek, and his amber eyes gleamed against the art, like honey dripping from a blue colored bowl.  I returned his gleeful smile, and he guided me through a narrow and flamboyantly decorated passage to the hall where the show was to take place. 

The hall, designed such that the spectators occupied the sumptuous red chairs circled in the center of the room, surrounded by the colossal, ring-shaped stage – presently obscured by red velvet curtains dazzling under a baroque, blue cut-glass chandelier – with all its grandeur, seemed to welcome me eerily, causing the blood to rise to my cheeks and flush them red, as faces atop the spectators that packed the theatre turned towards me one by one like a file of domino tiles collapsing, and showed all of themselves to be covered in embellished masks, revealing only their prying eyes that landed on my unmasked, handsome, yet scarred and now embarrassed countenance. Unaware of the peculiar dress code, I quietly walked through the eddies of obscured faces, acquired an unoccupied seat in the second row, and let out a sigh of relief as the audience’s eyes slowly averted back to the stage. 

A low hush and inaudible whispers raced among the crowd in frenzied excitement as the curtains parted swiftly, unveiling a pitch dark and empty stage. Abandoned by the velvet palls, I could have almost felt myself exposed to the bleak murk that seemed to engulf me from all three hundred and sixty degrees, if it were not for the blinding beam of light that abruptly tore through the darkness and landed on a grand structure, sitting conceitedly –  as if aware of its bewitching glossy, black sheen scintillating under the glare of the light – toward my left of the annulate stage, accompanied by a young man, dressed in a black tailcoat suit and a beaver silk top hat, seated on a stool in front of the structure.

The Pianist lifted the fall and the row of pure ivory keys marched into view, only slightly obstructed by his slender fingers that now rested on the keys.  Breaths were held in anticipation, and the air lay heavy with a silence riveted to its nooks. The first note struck. Notes of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, played allegro, cannoned into the vast resplendently decorated walls, and reverberated through the theatre like high tides breaking on a shore. The once somber stage now dazzled in lights. A red silk cloth hung fixed to the ceiling, and hanging by the cloth a boy dressed in a bedecked white shirt, a checkered waistcoat, a purple, velvet cloak, and black capacious velveteen, with a pattern painted in blue below his left eye, and his tangerine hair half dangling down his shoulders and half tied up in a ponytail, flung into view. Turkish March rose to a crescendo, the waves of music crashing and rising against its masked spectators. The stage flared alive with performers in sequined dresses and elaborate make-up, making their appearances all at once, as different performances seized the stage in all directions. I turned to my right. Ballerinas pirouetted in white feathery tutus adorned with jewels, opalescent like stars twinkling shyly in the night sky. Their ballet shoes followed after each other like swans feeding by a lake. I turned further right. Four lissome girls dressed in black and red close-fitting costumes cavorted and pranced about each other merrily, resembling merry children frolicking, and making me marvel at their bodies’ flexibility. They took turns to hold two rings, alight with fire, through which the other two girls leaped swiftly. I continued to turn. A sinewy and bald man enveloped in tattoos, and showcasing his rippling muscles, breathed fire through his mouth while two children danced around the flames. A man, dressed in a tuxedo and a Magician’s hat, displayed four playing cards in his right hand. 

As I continued to turn left and right, and front and back, time and time again, in an attempt to catch a glimpse of all there was to see, wonderstruck by the magical performances, vibrant fabrics glided over my eyes, the dancers and the gymnasts frisked through the air, the Magician ensnared my attention with his staggering tricks, the pianist’s slender fingers danced over the ivory keys to fill my ears with Turkish March playing most vivaciously, an unfathomable bliss rose in my heart and an ecstatic laughter escaped my lips parted in awe. The circus transformed into a sea of euphoria into which I gaily plunged and drowned further every second, weightless and lost in this merry carnival.  

The show eventually rolled to an end, the performers stood in a long circular file over the stage and bowed, the red curtains veiled the stage once again, and the sound of applause still rang through the air. Laying back in my chair and smiling elatedly, I glanced about myself at the swirls of enigmatic guests, and my gaze rested on the boy seated in the front right seat, observing as his fingers reached for his mask and nonchalantly unmasked his countenance. My eyes started, threatening to disgorge from my face, as the boy turned to face me with a curious smile plastered on his face which appeared undeniably kindred to mine. Had it not been for the locks of silver hair that rested on his forehead, I would have mistaken myself to be gazing straight into a looking glass. 

He stood from his chair and started walking. With my eyes fixated on his silver hair, I followed close behind, brushing past the sea of masked men and women who turned to me every once or twice with a cross glare. In a fevered rush, I bumped into a child, causing his canapes to be served to the carpet, and a distance to advance between me and my mirror image. I searched frantically for his face, my eyes running through the billows of masks for a face among them, and thought I saw a lock of silver hair, fading behind the curtains over a small door at the corner of the hall. Reaching the door, I slid through the curtains and walked into the room inside. Pitch darkness proceeded before my eyes, and I looked around to find a lone, lit wax candle on a small table not too far from where I stood. There was no sign of the boy, or even if there was, I shouldn’t have been able to tell in the darkness. Taking hold of the candle, I descended down a tapered passage of stairs, walled from both sides and restricting my view like that of a horse donning blinkers, that led me to a vast, dimly lit hall.  

 

A faint ray of light entered through a window – whose panes stood blanketed in layers of dust, blemished with cracks, appearing to be a frozen lake splitting under the frost, and secured to metallic frames being eaten away by rust – and scattered through the dust particles dancing in the moonlight. Walking a bit further, I immediately stepped back and drew in a hasty breath, as the candlelight revealed the ground on which I stood to end abruptly and give way to a circular pit. On close examination, I descried chairs – much similar in design to the hall above, and I assumed, once alike in color too, before falling prey to the dust and cobwebs – arranged in swirls, awaiting spectators that never arrived, in the pit, and realized that I stood on a stage. With my pupils now dilated and calibrated to the darkness, I could make out the inhabitants of the hall more precisely.  The stage was occupied with people, the same performers, only how perplexingly different they looked, all stopped in the midst of their acts as if someone had just commanded, “statue!”.

 

“Excuse me, I did not intend to interrupt,” I said aloud, but doubted I did, because my apology instigated no response, as though my words had fallen on deaf ears. 

 

A grand piano rested on the stage, at the same place as the stage above; however, the bass bridge beneath the cover had become shelter to a family of mice, and the ivory keys, a stage for the dance of beetles. I held the candle to the pianist’s face to observe his eyes squeezed shut, a dismal tension marring his countenance, and a tear glimmering like a crystal on his cheek which was as pale and ivory as the piano’s keys. The Joker, dressed in the same checkered waistcoat, sported a jubilant smile that juxtaposed with the tears that ran down his face with the blue ruined paint below his eye. I gazed deep into his eyes in which tears were swimming like a desolate lake by the moon, with his gaze secured at a distant nothingness. 
I glanced about the room and its artists who were cast under the spell of a peculiar witchcraft, enmeshed in the grip of a heinous ruin, and being gnawed at by the pitiless fangs of decay, and a surging pang of melancholy overtook me releasing pent up sorrow from my heart as streams of tears down my own face. 

 

Having reached the end of my tether, I was on the verge of sprinting towards the exit when I noticed silver hair highlighted by the moon’s silver light, of the boy standing by the window, with numerous snakes entwined about his build. I walked to him. 
“What is this place?” I blurted in desperation, causing him to avert his gaze from the moon to my eyes.

The same curious smile appeared on his face, “Do you not know already?”. The snake wrapped around his arm hissed at me, “asks Goethe,” he continued. I shook my head in the negative.

 

“Don’t lie to me,” the Snake Charmer spoke in a shrill voice, as the serpent coiled around his neck hissed and slithered menacingly towards me, and gliding around my neck, brought me uncomfortably close to his mystifying countenance. “Says Malcolm,” his voice, now deep and tranquilizing as if reverberating from the bottom of a well, reached my ears. His deep, blue eyes stared piercingly into mine. “Why, it is a looking glass!” Another snake hissed, facing me. “A looking glass, little boy, to the world, to your own life! Do you not prance about mirthfully in affluent dressing, performing your petty tricks, obscuring your handsome yet grieved face behind ornamented masks, in attempts to please the world, your father, your audience, your ears pining for applause, a standing ovation, an acceptance into society, so shamefully ignorant of your own passions, of the decay you have caused to gnaw at your little, burdened heart, of the mice and beetles eating away your true face beneath the mask, until there is nothing left of you but the identity you chose to wore your whole life?” Tears landed on my hands, as I gazed deeper into his eyes, my eyes, the looking glass, and the serpent choking my neck hissed.

 

“What is your life but a carnival of rust?”
 

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