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She brought a mask back with her. It was wrapped in a square of ivory silk, inside a blood-red wooden box. The box had silhouettes of coupling animals, birds and fish carved deep into its sides. The silhouettes were touched here and there with a soft, pale gold that gave certain of the creatures an odd sheen, as though they were perspiring.
I hated the mask from the minute, from the second, that I saw its casket. I told her so, but she paid no attention. She adored it. She wouldn’t have a word said against it. It wasn’t natural.
Inside its box, in its silken shroud, the mask slept on. A memento, she said, a symbol of the distance she had travelled.
It was hand-crafted in jet and turquoise, emerald and jade. See its perfect oval beauty, she said, not taking her eyes away from it, not even for the briefest of moments, to look into mine.
She awakened it, and displayed it with possessive pride, for everyone to see. It was admired, an ornamental success. It was discussed, a conversational victory.
Family and friends, acquaintances and casual visitors, invited to or not – all of them stopped to stare and wonder at it. They argued about it. Violently!
It represents a woman and she is old.
It is an image of a boy and he is young.
It represents! It’s an image! As if they couldn’t see, as I could see, the breathing in its skin, the deepening flush of its freshly coursing blood.
She partook of these discussions as observer only and seemed to relish that they didn’t think to ask her for her opinion, which they never did. It wasn’t natural.
When the mask began to slip, she moved as swiftly as an April storm to straighten it again.
Though she made it clear that she didn’t see the need, I stood guard whenever I could.
Eyeless, it stared keenly around the room, sometimes waiting hours for an empty space to blink in. Mouthless, it whispered to the walls and floors and ceilings, sometimes waiting days for an empty space to speak in.
It had a certain way in which it wouldn’t meet my gaze that made me feel triumphant.
The weeks wore on. Visits began to giggle nervously among themselves and ask each other whether its eyes were looking sharper, if its mouth was growing bigger.
Their comments merely took the edge off its humour and made it blunt.
When it grew a tongue to lash with, some turned to look the other way, pretended not to listen. Most stopped coming altogether, until one by one all of the visitors had gone.
You could hardly blame them.
She blamed me.
Though she made it clear that she didn’t want me to, I stood guard whenever I could. It had a certain way in which it wouldn’t meet my gaze that made me feel afraid.