The Mask - A Short Story by Justine Niogret
I don't know why she keeps me with her.
The truth is, I don't even know if she can still see me.
I don't know why I stay with her, either.
For the memories, maybe. Or for the hope? If it's for hope, I'm not a man, but a fool, but I know very well it's for hope.
I was the servant of her body. She was a Thalos priestess. I used to wash her at the end of the long days. I used to bathe her- sweet sponge caresses, soapy, milky, perfumed water. She used to soak in the bath, to float in it like a weed from the sea. I used to comb her hair, to braid her beautiful hair, and prepare her for the night. I used to kiss her eyes when she was exhausted from work, when she was exhausted from too many prayers.
I used to touch her body with ointments and pomades, I used to know each and every one of her secrets; her translucent skin in the very high of her thigh, her bronze hairs hidden under her strong arms. I knew her scent, each time a bit different, softer, sweeter. We never prayed together. Never. I never missed it. I knew everything of her, and I wanted nothing more.
Them... they were something else. I knew very well what was in their eyes. Lust, of course, but fear too, so much fear.
She was pure. We judge them, those women, those priestesses. We give them names they don't deserve. We suspect plans and designs and secrets under their desires, but she hadn't any plan nor design. For her, touching flesh was praying, that's all. Every flesh. It wasn't just what took place in her temple, in her bedroom. I saw her... I saw her brushing an old man's hair, getting her beautiful gold comb out of the folds of her toga and unknoting his hair. There, in the raw light of the sun, in the scent of the street's dry dust. She tamed him like an exotic bird, hand outstretched, and he came to her. He had silver hair, transparent, light as a newborn's. I saw her feel the arm of an exhausted woman carrying a jar of water on her head. I saw her graze her cheek on this woman's arm- scorching skin, color of baked bread, spicy with sweat, and smooth, and iced by the water, dripping from the jar. I saw her... I saw her so many times. For her, touching flesh was praying. She knew how to see beauty in everybody coming at her.
But them... I never saw prayer in their lust, just filth. Not all of them, of course. Most of them prayed with her, and I used to hear them in her bedroom, their bodies, their heavy breaths, their laughs too. They were fulfilled when leaving the temple and she was too. I'm talking about the ones who gave her bad names. I'm talking about the ones who used to challenge each other until one of them, with shaking hands, took out his purse and choose a gold coin, a jewel, enough money to make a family eat well for a month, two, sometimes more. These ones, they used to go to her temple not because of joy, but to prove something.
I know they wanted to take something from her, but they never did. She gave nothing, she took nothing in those embraces. She used to lose herself in it, to find herself in it, as in the hair of the old man, as in the sweat of the exhausted woman, as in the arms of those who really prayed with her.
She never understood that. I wanted so badly to tell her to be wary of those ones, those ones with shivering hands. Tell her they needed her and that this need was leading them to anger, to rage. But we never spoke. She was whole with the flesh, the song of the words was nothing to her. Maybe, if I had said something... I don't know. I'm a man of hope, therefore a fool, I said that already.
Then the mask came into her life. It was an ugly thing, badly forged, big chipped flakes of rust. It stunk of iron. The eyes were hollow, two gaping chasms, frightful. They weren't holes. They were two dead things rotting in a sticky dust.
I don't know who gave it to her, nor when. I found it on her white bed, laid on one of the cushions. It disgusted me. I tried to take it, to put it away, to hide it, to lock it, I confess that, but she touched my hand to stop me. I relished in her touch, as I used to do every time her skin brushed against mine. I raised my eyes and looked at her, at her eyes only capable of seeing beauty, candor, life. I hesitated, but I wasn't her master, nor her God, nor even her friend. I was her servant, so, I took my hand from it.
The next day, I found her standing in front of her window. She was wearing the mask. She was looking outside. She must have been cold, because two small fumes were dancing from the holes of her eyes. She jolted when she saw me, looked as if she was waking up from a painful dream. She took off the mask. It left a crimson line across the flesh of her nose. She smiled at me, caressed my cheek. She knew she had to reassure me. Then, the day went like any other day. She prayed, she worked.
Some mornings, I found her looking through the dead eyes of the iron mask. Always, those fumes. Always, the crimson line across her nose. Always, her caress on my cheek. I understood, later, this touch was her asking for forgiveness. For what ? For letting the mask devour her, maybe. For letting herself disappear.
One morning, I came into her bedroom and she wasn't there. I knew her perfume so well- the scent of her body, the odor of her hair- and I was hoping so much. I found my way to her. I followed her in the mountains. She had run and her feet were bleeding. She heard me shouting for her and she turned around. Her face was stained with rust because she wore the mask and she had cried inside it. She let me come by her side and she grasped my shoulders, her strong hands on my skin, and I shivered. The air was sticky from lavender dust, purple and grey, thick. We were alone in the mountains, and she screamed, a distress as pure as her past desires. I already knew the temple and the flesh were past; dead.
I tried to take the mask away from her, but the fumes became dark and hot, and she slapped my hands severely, screaming in pain. I thought of her nose, of this crimson line, and I asked myself if the mask hadn't pushed his roots into her face, her so smooth face. I looked for her eyes in the holes of the mask and I saw nothing. Nothing. She pointed something out. I couldn't see what. She went and fell on her knees, cutting one of them on a flint stone piercing the sand. It was an old bonfire. She took a burnt log, she took it with both hands, showed it to me, and she crushed this charcoal, she scattered it to the winds, on the ground. I understood what she was saying. She only saw ashes. She took my face between her hands and brushed me with the soot, and I understood: even the bodies, for her, now, were nothing more than burned corpses. She only saw death. She only saw what fire would leave behind. She hit her heart with her blackened fists, and she stained her breasts, ebony stars of cold. I took her in my arms and I cried with her.
We roved in the mountains, in the salted scent of the near sea. She changed. She became somebody else, and in the beginning, everything was pain to her. She was hurting to be far from herself, far from the part of her still struggling, still suffocating, the part of her who couldn't reach the world anymore. I combed her hair, but instead of drying her lavender scented hair, now I was rubbing a dusty mane, worn out by the straps on the mask. Instead of polishing her skin, I was bandaging the bloody cuts of her feet. Instead of caressing her cheeks, I was trying to clean up the rusty stains fallen from the smoking eyes of her mask. I never thought she was less beautiful. Even dirty, even under the mask. Even when she started to be covered in scars, to grow thinner, when I saw her ribs under her skin. I wanted nothing, but being with her, and I was with her.
One morning, she laughed. It woke me up, and for a second I thought we were back in our home, in her temple, on that huge bed of hers. We were still lost in the mountains, and she was too skinny, she was filthy, but she was laughing, and the sun was painting reds and golds on her mask, making it shine like a fever. The fumes were blacker than ever. She showed me something inside her hands, and I took a second to look at what it was. It was the cadaver of a rat. She had de-fleshed it with her nails, with caution. Every nerve, every vein. All this raw flesh was lying on the ground, and she was handing me this perfect skeleton, so well done it was already whitish. She was laughing. She was asking me to understand, and I did it out of love, out of love for her. Her two sides were connected, at last. Her love for the flesh, and her vision of death. Everything was enclosed in this secret, in this de-fleshed rat, this still warm skeleton. Once the bones were out, she wasn't seeing ashes anymore. Everything was beautiful again, smooth and good.
One could say I saw her beginning insanity, this morning, but I think I just saw her become whole again.
We found horses. We found weapons. She started to pray again, but not as before. She chased them, she stripped them, she removed their flesh and their muscles. She was praying. She started to keep the bones, to make mobiles in the wind, hung in the trees. To make sculptures in the mountains. Paths cobbled with bones.
Sometimes, I go back to town. I steal or I buy enough to eat, and I come back to her, my horse heavy with bread, and with wine and oil. I come back to her, sometimes with men and women. I tell them a story about a gold vein, a relic, or anything they want to hear to make them come with me. When we are in the mountains, when we sleep, she comes from her hideout, at night, and she prays, and I never ask what she does with the bodies. The day after, she wears a new skull on her saddle, and new mobiles mingle in the trees. She ties some things on her saddle, things she sits on, long and thick bones, and those too are prayers for her, but I don't want to think about it for too long.
I don't know why she keeps me with her.
I think she knows she asks so much of me. Because, sometimes, at night, she comes under my blankets and she tries to pray like she used to, in her temple.
I don't want anything, just to be with her, and I am with her. Even if her sex is cold as ice and my flesh will never please her like the bones on her saddle do.