Eyes at the Masque

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: November 16, 2017

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Submitted: November 16, 2017

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Eyes at the Masque

 

"In the final analysis, every man devoured by the overpowering desire to endure and possess wishes that those whom he has loved were either sterile or dead." — Albert Camus

 

Two to six. The sun has shifted to a slant that sifts feebly among the great expanse of monoliths some black and some without color of their own. Shapes of unlife lie heavy in darkness and sleep, lethargic under the spell of cold twilight and what it brings. Where the last light falls every evening in this city stands a Georgian colonial, foreign in its tasteless architecture, stark white, and perhaps more ancient than the grand temples that were put on the outer rim of that kingdom where ascetics churn to new sins and contrive new salvations. And to this eyesore a belated visitor was drawn out of the besieging dark. Behind me in the old living room mirror, the diminutive but regal form of Mr. Dibb, famed dealer in curios, hovered from one item to another, an audience of one perusing in silence though none could say for how long and to how many such exhibits had he been witness and by what few among these had he been impressed. At last he stopped before Silva Cara, his hand assuming a contemplative pose under his chin.

 “Something ain’t right,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked turning away from the polished glass.

“It’s the shadder.”

“What?”

“The shadder,” he pointed to a spot. “Looks to me like it oughta have more trees here.”

I stared dumbly, for I could I give him no explanation.

“Well?”

“I don’t know.”

He shook his head.

“Have ye forgot? Darn shame. I cain’t take any of these off yer hand if ye don’t remember.  And ye cain’t peddle them without yerself knowing neither.”

He tarried at the door maybe out of disappointment at what had seemed a promising find.

“Say, why don’t I come back in a few weeks, see if ye have finished that piece over there?”

I replied in the negative, citing a flagging inspiration and a desire to try my hand at other arts. With a pat on the shoulder he placed in me a tired patronal hope like a man at the fatal end of his search.

“I’ll come by anyhow. See how ye fare. There’s potential in you, lad, whatever ye decide to put yer talents to. Forgot or not, jest try to remember next time round.”

With that he made his way up the street he had come, one second visible under a hazy lamplight, another merging unseen with the void between with only the singsong refrain to make certain his corporeality.

“Remember . . . remember . . .”

*******************************************

 
   

The dreaming began shortly afterward.

A new portal opened where hitherto had been an unbroken infinity of unconsciousness. Through this crevasse I was dragged night after night to a dream feast peopled with painted mummers dressed in austere habiliments. By some feat of self-awareness, I knew that my dream-self too was a mime. We knew not why we had congregated there and our painted faces searched idly among ourselves, and I would wake while this terrible search went on, a waltz of black lips and ivory cheeks and stone-dead eyes.

It pains me to admit, as it always does, that the cause of this malady is you or, to be more precise, a simile of you. Yes. The abyss that gnaws within me has had its turn of triumph. To keep it at bay, I return again to Silva Cara, my first and only unfinished work. I have no conception what I intend to do. Perhaps I simply forgot. One morn I took up the brush and all I did was sit and stare. I can’t bring myself to add more trees or get rid of that blot to which Mr. Dibb alluded. Even farther be it from me to envision what the whole thing should look like when finished, should it ever be finished. I feel that all is unworthy, that even the fabled strokes of Pickman or Finlay would never do justice to this proxy, let alone those from the hand of this insignificant I. Yet I return to the stool and take in every detail like opium. Have you forgotten that night, that summer? How terrible it is to live as strangers to our innermost desires, like seeing ourselves for the first time after so many years in the mirror. Will I forget my own one day? 

I must confess to another offense. A few days later, I reestablished contact with Bea, and I think it was only because of her inseparable history with you that she even came to my mind. Reestablish might not be the proper word here. After all, we moved and functioned in different spheres that would not have met on their natural courses. But with the departure of youth came a prospect of lonesomeness which gave me an incentive to act. So I had called her and had turned unsatisfied from the mirror, not for the lack of color in my wardrobe, but because for a moment I didn’t recognize the face that greeted me. For a moment it was that mime that I saw, that mirthless automaton subservient to his lust, blind to real passions, having done away with shame and guilt.

When I arrived at the place we had agreed to meet, it took less effort for me to pick her out from the crowd than to stay my repulsion at its carefree chatter and cajoling that veiled a malicious apathy. She is as I remember from those old summer days. Eyes black as the raven hair that hangs down both sides of her face to her bosom and down her straight back. Her wide cheekbones, sharp jawline, and faint sinewy hints betray a delicate strength contained within her lissome form.

 

We made awkward attempts at commonplace, not uncommon in acquaintances meeting again after long years, interspersed by yet more awkward bouts of silence. At first the conversation veered back and forth between the how and the where we have each been. With feigned interest I told of my day job at the directorate, and she of her internship at the plant. Our exchange moved on from the bustle of the plaza to a street cart where we both, without much creativity, ordered red noodles. Over our steaming repast we talked of our almae matres and the well-being of some acquaintances from that summer we had kept through the years of new relationships, and wondered about those who had simply disappeared from sight and mind. By the time we bought our tickets at the cinema, I felt we had exhausted too much of our external lives, and that our inner lives remained unplumbed. How we must have seemed in that place of youth first timers at the game of romance, following to the fine print the rigid procedure of modern courting: introduction, food, movie or some other distraction from the drudgery, then a parting in hope of much the same.

However, I couldn’t help but wonder if she also felt herself, as all exiles should, a stranger to this silent and hostile country. And I wondered also if it should not be us who mocked with profound understanding and esoteric vicariousness that madding crowd who continued to float past us in fading adumbration. Before I knew it, she had accepted my invitation to the studio, where my inmost life lay torpid. She’d like to see my works she said; and I could see that she was not insensitive to the fantastic. Can she be the one whose inner life could enkindle? After the film she departed with a smile, and I with a renewed vigor for this new specimen that occupied both my past and present. Do not fret, my dear, for the future invariably belongs to you.

*******************************************

When I next returned to the dream feast, the night after Bea’s first visit, I was to find a new development. As I approached the usual moment of awakening, ever searching among the painted faces of searchers I know not what, a light came on a stage and caught the solemn figures of a quartet dressed in black, embracing their instruments in a tango of stillness. But before they could work their magic, I found myself staring at the flaking ceiling of my bedroom, and the memory of the evening pleasantries pushed the phantasmagoric episode to the back of my mind.

For the most part, Bea didn’t seem to mind the state of uncouthness befitting a lone bachelor’s apartment that doubled as his creative sanctum. She inquired about the two pieces standing among clutter of boxes containing other less notable specimens. Commissions, I said. Pieces for album covers for a local band. My only two pieces that sold. Her eyes shone with bright awe as I traced every detail of one, a panoramic hellscape in red with myth beasts black as obsidian circling above the their matriarch tearing at the carcass of an intrepid knight. With the other, a canvas full of artificed dark from which peered a blood-drenched face, she expectedly assumed an attitude of unease, for that was its sole purpose: to induce spiritual affliction. A cheap trick employed by advocates of uncontexualized horror, to be sure, but it was a time of internal strife for my employers. And it was to their credit that the Dragoners had held out long against the Sons of Yama who burst forth from their bosoms in the satanic convulsions that gripped this country’s underground scene. These two studies were the beginning and end of my life’s chapter as a paid artist. When integrity gave way for crass livelihood, I didn’t see why I should tie myself to the same anchor.

What an amateur I am pouring out in welters of individuated confusions. I feel almost the same as when I poured them out to you all those years ago.

But do those glints in her eyes, of awe and of unease, could light into something more magnificent? Will she be struck blind by the truth that yawns above and around and within us? And what of this self-mutilation of the soul I must endure knowing that I could feel for another? Ah, my restless heart beating in outrage at the triumph of flesh. And how her dimpled smile promises of things to come. Now that I’m fully awake, will you not let my brush take you? A smidgen of sap green and alizarin, or these lone stalks in Cassel that will add more to your mysteries?

No! No! Stop this at once! I have no right. I mustn’t. I can’t. I shan’t. Why did you shun me so? Forgive me. Please, forgive me . . .

*******************************************

“Sit still, won’t you?” I said.

“How much longer?”

“Just a few.”

“It better come out right.”

“I certainly hope so.”

She shifted stiffly on the stool. The pale caps of her knees pointed aslant. Her hands pressed together on her lap. A slight smile strained from exertion. Brushstrokes accompanied a selection of instrumentals put on shuffle. Nothing else could be heard. The stillness carried us along its hazy course to an unknown destination.

“Do you ever miss it all?” She asked suddenly.

“What ought I to miss?”

“I dunno. Being young, maybe? Things we used to do. Places where we used to go and could have gone to when we still had the years to spare. People we wish were still there where there are now holes in our lives.”

“Some, I guess.”

Her smile gave a little. For a moment it buckled. Teetered.

“I still do, you know. At least I wish the search never ends. It’s dreadful to think of what will happen to me when it does. Will I grow too old and weary? I see them everywhere here. People who spent most of their lives in search of their own grave. Better to search for something we never knew existed.”

She turned to the record player where the pitch black vinyl spun in its place, a vortex that did not suck but spewed from its illusory depth a dictation by an eye that did not see. The wailing lead trailed off fading into an indeterminate end of its own whereupon new notes upheaved like hell rejects visited upon earth. For the first time she flinched at the music.

“That’s simply Chaos!”

“Believe it or not, it’s just C and C# arranged on different scales. Ingenious even. But Chaos? No. Nothing flourishes in Chaos. A disturbed psyche can be noisome without a traceable pattern, but once given expression even anger and hate can acquire sublimity.”

There it comes now.

The herta lording over a dodecaphonic cycle.

Sublime.

“Can you at least turn it down please?”

“What?”

“I’m just not in the mood for it.”

“What’s wrong?”

All done now. Painter and model. My strokes slacked as the tempest calmed to a whisper for which it was not made.

“After all that has happened,” she looked away into the mirror, “Do you still miss her?”

Her forlorn reflection juxtaposed against my newest creation in a scene of uncanny transplant: a pale beauty of flesh and soul drawn in spiritual pain and her likeness in oil fiery and confident eternally young but never living.

In the vault where my works were kept, she nodded at the blood-drenched face. “Don’t put me with that dreadful thing.”

I posited the portrait beside Silva Cara on which I had put a light cloth. She stood in the doorway watching.

“What’s on that easel?”

“Nothing. Let’s go.”

We walked out and down the grey steps flanked on one side by untended starcluster under a moon risen in the west that forebode no summer storm but a cold from no point of any compass that was new only to this land. At the station before the turnstile we bade goodbye and by accident blocked the way of a pair of commuting elders attended by a cortege of sons and daughters, and they in turn by sons and daughters of their own. She watched, confused yet indecipherable, as they filed past phlegmatically in their ancient ordering not to be disturbed and communed to any chance chronicler a history of all hopes and fears.

*******************************************

Do I still miss you? If only true longing could be put to words or notes or on canvas. Would she have understood had I revealed you to her, imperfect as you are? I’m beginning to think that there’s reason behind the dream-feast.

Last night the quartet had commenced their performance. And what a show they put on!!

The first few bars sent the mute crowd into a wild frenzy. In the vibration of strings, they received a mystic release. Not any word of commandment, yet nothing beyond human ingenuity. They rippled and convulsed, and many danced and swung about with their arms and legs to no known routine. Like atomic particles they collided, spreading by force and number until the hall became a field of battle without axes. Men and women, mimes in sardonic mutiny against their vow of silence, contorted and blurred by rapid, undirected exertions of their limbs, hitting, tearing, clawing at each other until blood ran slick on the floor.

Madness! Simple, comical madness! A jumble of odd times layered one over another. Yet I tapped almost instinctively. A two-bar phrase of four-four subdivided into two bars of five-sixteen and one bar of seven-sixteen and three bars of five-sixteen. A bar each of nine and ten-eight followed by two bars of seven-eight.  A whole solo section at four-four. A disappointment, all in all, and a pity to the other mimes, for they would eat all this up for the Chaos that it could never be. Knowing without possessing. Worship without creation.

And then there were the creators themselves. How they poised not so far above the crowd from which projected hands and claws reddened to the nails and faces, white and black and crimson, yet I felt that they rose high as if they stood upon an escarpment overlooking a mass surrender to some destiny without voice or expression. Possessors and knowers all, clothed in kaleidoscopy, embracing their instruments like lovers. In contrast to their music and audience, these priests remained rooted to their spots on stage, as though no place outside the spotlight would accept their gospel, and so they spoke in their own way and still kept sacred the mummery that had usurped life itself.

What do I keep coming back here for? Did I forget or did I not know?

I retreated from the crowd to the less populated region where refreshments could be procured. At the bar I sat dumb before a tender equally mute. A mirror had been put there suspended above rows of containers in which whorled a rainbow of spectral hues, misty draughts of Lethes, mercurials of deep silver and some deeper dews that creeked the  ravines of faraway moons. In the mottled surface I noted for the first time the unique severity of my paint. Whereas most others in attendance had a base of white for their masks, the whites of mine sat in a sea of black, solid, yet sickly like blood blackened to the extreme. It was no black of a prideful abyss, but a putrid corruption of things dead left graveless for too long in a sun also in the same stage of dissolution and abandonment by a universe that revolved and dealt in terms too great for locality.

Perhaps sensing a weariness to be remedied or gratified, the barkeep, palely made-up and sexless, took from the rows a vessel of emerald and poured a half tumbler. I eyed the drink curiously, and when I looked up again it was Mr. Dibb that greeted me where the tender had been. And he was not painted.

“I said I’d drop by sometime,” he smiled wearily. “No need to say anything. Wouldn’t want to get ye in trouble with management.”

He propped one elbow up on the hardwood and cocked his head in the direction of the pit, “Yer feeling it too, perhaps? Too old for that bit of nonsense. No offense to no one, of course. But one cain’t shake this feeling that there was a gulf that cain’t be bridged between those four up there and the countless below. I always reckoned I weren’t never made to go up there and nor was I made for the trial or the proving requisite for sech post. Sooner or later those down there who ain’t gon hafta face that same reckoning. “

He turned back and his hand went to caress the emerald vessel.

 “I heard ye been working with a model. On that piece we discussed, I hope.”

I shook my head. He let out a sigh and shook his.

Across the surface the tumbler came pushed toward me. It quavered on its short path where the wood was grained coarsely and in the quavering motion conveyed a reluctance in its forced coming. The liquid held within kept level throughout.

“Drink up,” his voice tinged with a hint of command. “It is said where I come from that a dry throat makes for a dull spirit.”

I downed the drink in one gulp. Its coolness seared. From the center it throbbed upward and the demoniac tune seemed amplified and chased down or away what quiet once remained.

His bald and ugly head leered where it hung swimming, quavering in a spectral band of mist, silver and mecurial. A vocal detainee to some madhouse with no hope of release or transcription.

*******************************************

 
   

We sat on opposite sides of the booth in a house of many glasses. There were ones screening the interior world of mahogany and bare bricks, a world refrigerated and cold against the humid deluging gray outside. And there were those within long and hung below cornices or vertically set between the ones that looked out and these, sparse in number and adornment of the frame, reflected pilgrims in groups of two, three, four, five, or in chapters or sects bent over great tables that could accommodate their numbers and the tasks they had set themselves on. Chess boards with fantastical pieces. Maps of wars waged on far lands. Pieces of ordnance and infantry in red, blue, yellow moved to the will of unsoldierly commanders. There were painted hexagons depicting mountains, forests and seas, all in every manner of harrowment at the onslaught of little tokens of industry. In our hands we held each a septet of pips and faces without suits drawn from the same deck though we shared not the same life or grave. A tick in her play: A fanning of cards in her hand before a meaningful maneuver. And down she would flick them in emphasis. After a few rounds I knew that in my life I would never beat her.

“Can you not do that?” I said.

“Do what?”

“Flicking the cards. You’re going to crease them.”

“People do that all the time.”

“So can you if you’re playing with your own cards.”

“Ha!” She exclaimed after the tick, the flick, and a master stroke that ended the absurd game.

“You seem to be enjoying yourself.”

“I am. We can go one more round.”

“Let’s not,” I declined, gathering up queens and kings and knights fallen face-up with one eye or two staring up rigid and white as marbles, and they were a closer kin to dead fish than any royalty. 

“The one-deck variant isn’t properly thought out anyway. With the players sharing one pool of resource, there bound to be cards and combos that you eventually can’t play even though the deck is yours and you know it by heart. All the accounting you have done for each and every possible first hand becomes again a matter of pure chance.”

“That’s pretty mouthful for an excuse.”

I sat silent. A quarter empty glass of lime soda fizzled its last next to my hand. Like all meals and drinks of recent days it had tasted nothing. For the first time I looked squarely into her eyes and held my gaze long and did search though I searched not for what was with or within but her merit as a measure for something outside her altogether.

Then, as we stood before the registrar at work sorting notes into slots like some obsessed plunderer, a few things happened in rapid succession. First, in the mirror directly facing where I stood, previously obstructed by a group of hunched pilgrims, something . . . a shadowy shape darted from where I had for the past few hours been seated. It slid out of the frame and to no avail my eyes by instinct sought it out among the grim goers. Second, the background music of the classic era shuffled, and a four-beat of the snare ushered in an upbeat guitar and a handsome tenor . . .

. . . A handsome tenor he has heard before on radio and mixes of old people’s music . . . the ineffable Orbison. He counts four guitars. The other pairs have begun to gyrate, clumsy, sincere. They hesitate. Their hands are in place where they should be, her right in his left, her left on his shoulder, his right hovering idiotically. He struggles to capture the blue vastness glistening outside and the pine trees standing close along pearl-white shores where kids play at games of architect shaping rough abodes out of the nothingness of sand with their hands and gaudy implements. His forefinger lands on the small of her back. “Don’t poke me,” she titters. Many things take shape in his mind. Worlds in which pasts lie abandoned and futures unshapen and truths both half and whole, all harsh yet sweet as lies. But he knows that there is a sacredness to this silence. A time and all time for action and not words. One by one the other digits follow, assuming an embrace immaculate and equal . . .

“What’s wrong?” Bea asked, a voice from across an uncharted immensity.

I had to remember. I simply had to.

“I hurt her.”

“What?”

“All those years ago. I did something terrible and I hurt her.”

“It’s all right now. It’s all in the past.”

“No, you don’t understand.”

Silence now of another kind. A loathing.

“Do you think . . .”

Stop. Stop while you still can.

“Do you think she has forgotten?”

“Poor thing,” a pitiless sympathy in her tone, “You have to let go.”

Her touch empty, weightless. It contained purpose but that purpose was not to soothe but to appease. “You have to forget.”

Everything was different, reflected not inverted but inside out: the room full of pilgrims, some now observing us with uneasy eyes and whispers of uncertain umbrage; the downpour outside where black-garbed men and women walked downcast in a hunched gait; and, not the least of all, those familiar words of command, a call to forget . . . betrayal. Only the music remained undoctored, an essence indivisible.

When I set out alone she was still standing there dumbfounded among the mounting censure of the pilgrims and of the beating of rain that awaited me, and they seemed in that new place the last deponents called upon to testify to my own reckoning to come.

*******************************************

From the back of the sanguine crowd I heard a laugh I would never again forget. There I saw you, not a day older, not a mark of my rapine on your perfection. With raptured eyes I watched and remembered how the world used to blush under your learned and guileless inquiry. In that nightmare realm you seemed a migrant from some enchanted land. Everything you touched transformed and gained new meanings. Every soul you brushed by recalled a lost heaven and they woke and abandoned the feast and circled and waited in turn for you to take their hand in pirouettes, and you continued to plug them from those on the outer rim of the death pit. How vibrant, how sublimely frenetic. Life spilled from each step you took. And though each of your partners had to let go, I discerned in their parting touch a vehement longing, as if the most infinitesimal increment of time joined to you would prove apotropaic, would prove that life needed not be all a trial or a proving. And who would I be who have longed the most for such trials and such provings if I claimed to know no such ache? For a moment I felt sure of my purpose. I knew what my destiny must be. 

From painted lips I broke my vow with your name.

All of a sudden the antics came to a halt. The lacerated crowd ceased their mindless letting. Around me hostile faces seemed to hover, focused with a vacancy of disbelief or seething outrage. They drew closer. Hundreds of lost souls with dripping claws begging for some succor in or against my rebellion. And I could see you and your entourage no more, knew not if you had heard my one and only act of bravery.

To the stage the crowd carried me. Above their heads and hands I drifted, a new christ harried to his cross.

Over the barrier I went. The quartet accepted their newest addition without a hint of welcome. To a newly lit spot they motioned me, and there awaited a throne and my only partner through whose majesty I must now speak, for I now had no mouth to further blaspheme. They all looked to me, audience and performers, for a queue from their new lead, a new act to the night's entertainment. Are you watching from somewhere? This is all for you, past and present and future all.

My left hand, desiccated and rotten, conjured up the first note on the ride to an inverse skank beat.

Will you stop me before the songs end?

Will you . . .

*******************************************

 
   

"Forgive my transgression,” the shadow greeted me as I woke. It squatted at the head of the mattress, looming void-like. I could see in its restlessness a prelude to some mischief.

“Do you remember me now?”

I nodded.

“You cannot, nay, will not renounce me. In me lies your only link to paradise. How many times have you cast me out? On restless nights you cry out not to her who no longer listens; you cry out so that I might hear a beckoning home, and from the wilderness I would return with fragments of ruin for your churning and your curation. Well, no more.”

To my feet I rose, skeletal in the moonlight. Through the venetian blind the partitioned beam fell over a cold empty spot on the mattress wherefrom a strange impressed shape slowly disappeared before my eyes . . . My eyes?

The shadow skipped as it led me to the covered easel.

“Now you remember.” It handed me the brush that had lain unpigmented, dripping malodorous thinner. “Now you create.”

So I went to work, with your smile, your laugh, and your life forever etched on the screens of my inward eyes. And to the shadow that should not be I gave more of the blackness of my paint, seeping uncontrollably now from every pore of my being, from the hallowed abyss that lay within. Down my eyeless face it cascaded; a tarry dark spread beneath me and in it floated sloughs of putrid flesh and scraggly hair. The shadow, cackling and clapping and romping, dove home into the unfurling depth. No form will contain my passion, no world will be spared from its fire.

Ah! Who are you, again? You who do not know to remember are as easily forgot. Come and see what’s on the easel. Is that not what you wanted? Beautiful isn’t she? Silva Cara. More precious than any Eden. See the poor souls writhing and worm-ridden under the hickory, or that devil spying the damsel from among the bleeding heather, or the fetal fruits drooping with noxious offspring of foul and unguessed dimensions? More will come to me. Beyond elementary visions past all archetypes of reason and unreason into a realm of senseless beauty, a silence that will render demented all the gods and the stars.

Do not flinch at the fire. It is not wild or witless, but embers that will burn bright with youth and immortality. How else do you think such things could be reclaimed? The fire! The fire! Even now the tongues lap away like some hungering polystomatous watchdog. Look! It has begun. Wings to bear me away. Ears forever shut against the vulgar noise of this world. And this song. My song for you. All for you.

Denuo amabo te cum tenebra loqui desinereque desinas.  

Saltabo tecum iterum in lunis longuinquis.

*******************************************

By miracle the fire in the night did not spread beyond its source. When the crew arrived barely a crowd had gathered from the nondescript neighborhood of townhouses and slum before a smoldering heap of whitewood. The conflagration had contained itself to the mostly vacant lodging. And in the dark pupils of all in assembly there reflected an amber constellation drear against a cryptic nebula in the vague configuration of agony and death, a fate or fortune told a million times in the shattered glass strewn and twinkling to the caprice of time or space, a preciousness captured in certain angles visited once and gone. They stood wordless. Pale things transfixed at the edge of the dying fire. None knew the man who had lodged there; and few words passed among them when an officer noted that the body had been hollowed out to a husk from inside.

It was Mr. Dibb, forwandered, who called the dull watchers to hush, hark, and jubilate. For most nothing could be heard save the distant bustle of the sleepless city, a screech of cat somewhere in the dark beyond, or profane accompaniments to primal consummations. But to those who hoped and sought was divulged a secret cadence: the beating heart of monstrous Night descended and deadened in the dark down the valley of perfect shadows. 


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