by Michaele Jordan
It started with her best friend’s father. Elsa had never liked him—been a little afraid of him, really. He was tall, skinny and practically hairless, with long fingers perfect for strangling small creatures. But she faced him without flinching because of his wonderful antique shop.
The lights were low so his many splendid things wouldn’t fade. Narrow aisles snaked through towers of stacked merchandise. More items, suspended on wires, swayed in the breeze of a spinning fan. It looked cluttered, but it wasn’t. Just the opposite. The glass of the display cases was always sparkling, the brass always polished. Not a speck of dust anywhere. She had allergies so she noticed. Nothing was out of place in all the dark and inexplicable bounty of dolls too dangerous to play with and porcelain so fragile that it would shatter under the impact of a sharp glance.
Then one day he sent her friend to fetch a book a customer wanted from the back. Jessie puffed up with pride at the responsibility. The two of them tiptoed down a long narrow aisle, and there—in between a huge bookshelf and a display of Chinese headdresses—was a cabinet marked ‘Magical Paraphernalia’.
Elsa forgot about Jessie. She didn’t remember approaching the cabinet, just suddenly found her nose and fingers pressed up against the glass, like a piece of lint sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Inside were hand-painted Tarot cards and a set of ivory sticks covered with engravings. There were amulets and a monkey’s paw—at least that’s what the label said it was—and a whole rack of crystal balls (some of which could be set to spinning).
And there was a mask. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, carved from some pale wood, but thickly streaked with a dark, gnarly grain. Gold wires were inlaid to spiral across the surface, so the facial features emerged from the glowing coils like flowers blooming on a vine. A line of inset diamonds down the center suggested a nose, and beneath it was a kiss-shaped cluster of rubies. The canted eyes were outlined in sapphires, which made them look like deep, secret pools.
She yearned for that mask! Wearing it, she would be transformed! No longer small, sickly and sad, but tall, elegant and otherly. Her fingers scratched at the edge of the doors, searching for a catch.
“Elsie! What are you doing?” Jessie was suddenly beside her, the book they’d come for clamped under her arm, leaving both her hands free to tug on Elsa’s arm. At that very second, Elsa felt a sharp pain in her hand. Could her hand have welded itself to the door? It felt as if her very flesh was being pulled away. “Oh my gosh! You’re bleeding!” cried Jessie, and ran, still pulling Elsa with her, to the front of the shop. “Papa, help! Elsie’s hurt herself.”
Her father turned and looked. Then, to his customer he said, “If you will excuse me, Ma’am.” Pressing Jessie forward, he continued, “My daughter will be happy to take care of you.”
Jessie’s eyes widened, and she glanced uneasily at her injured friend, but she stepped up to the counter and proffered the book she had brought up with a smile. Her father did not pause to supervise. He squatted down by Elsa, and cradled her wrist in one hand. With the other, he plucked a first-aid kit from somewhere. “Oh, dear, that’s a nasty cut. How did it happen?” It wasn’t a cut—it was broad and ragged. He looked into her eyes. “On the door of the magic cabinet?” How did he know? “There must be a sharp edge on the catch plate.” There wasn’t.
He pulled an unlabeled jar out of the first-aid kit. It looked more like a spice shaker than a medicine bottle—and he shook it over her bleeding hand like he was salting French fries. The powder burned, and she tried to pull away, but he held her wrist tight. “You must have seen my mask. Did you like it?” The customer probably thought he was trying to distract her, the way medical staff always did with children. But Elsa suspected he really wanted to know.
“No,” she lied. “It looked so sad.”
He chuckled. “Wise child! It is the saddest mask in the world.” He wrapped a bandage around her hand, and rose to watch as Jessie printed out the customer’s receipt. “Now, you two run along.”
She hated to go, and as soon as they were out of the shop, she wanted desperately to get back in. But obstacles rose up hourly to block her path. It took days (and felt like years) before she could return. Jessie was sitting at the front counter, with her father nowhere in sight. Perfect! “I wanna go see the mask,” Elsa announced, marching right past her friend.
“Hey, we’re not allowed back there,” Jessie called after her. She vacillated a second between abandoning her post and letting Elsa invade the inner sanctum, then chased after her. “You’ll get me in trouble,” she hissed, grabbing Elsa’s arm.
Elsa didn’t notice. The mask was gone. The magic cabinet, the tarot cards, the crystal balls were all still there, but no mask, just a large fan painted with Japanese lettering. She stared, stunned. “What happened to the mask?” she whispered.
“Papa sold it,” said Jessie. “And good riddance, too. I hated that ugly thing.”
A thousand protests rose to Elsa’s lips. She swallowed them all, and forced a smile. It was the hardest thing she’d ever done. But there was no point saying anything to Jessie. The mask was sold. Elsa was very sure that Jessie’s father had sold it on purpose, just to keep it away from her. He’d known she wanted it and gotten rid of it so she couldn’t have it. She would never forgive that. Never.
So she never mentioned it again. But she tried to find it. She sneaked a peek at the books when Jessie wasn’t looking. The buyer had paid cash, and had left no name. But he must have been rich to pay so much, so she started looking in Who’s Who for rich people that cared about magic. There were not a lot of them, or at least not a lot that admitted to it. Rich people tended to be practical.
So she started studying the history of magic, trying to find out what the mask was, or where it was from. The short form: masks came from anywhere and everywhere, and (assuming you believed in magic) could do pretty much anything, depending on who had them, and how they went about it. All the while she was researching this, she told anyone who asked it was just a hobby. She had to pretend she didn’t really care, in case someone tried to stop her, the way Jessie’s father had tried to stop her. She didn’t want anyone trying to stop her again.
She went to college in New York, officially to study Art History, but in fact to explore the city’s many museums, antique stores and magic shops. Some of them reminded her of the antique shop back home. It was a funny thing; she still hated Jessie’s father, but she missed his shop terribly. She checked all the mask shops she could find, but they were disappointing. They were full of Halloween masks—some of them Hollywood quality and very expensive, but still just costume stuff.
So she decided to do her junior year in Prague, where the golem was made. Not, perhaps, the best idea ever. There was a lot of Jewish magic in Prague. But Jewish magic was practically the only form of magic that never used masks. Something to do with the prohibition against images. Even the golem had only functioned because it was not an image but a vessel. She wondered if that applied to Arabic magic, too. She hadn’t studied Arabic magic, as of yet.
But if not Prague, then where? Well, lots of places. She was not the first American to be stunned by how small Europe was, how short the distances between world capital and world capitol. She grew very fond of Venice.
All of Europe had played with festival masks in the middle ages, but the medieval Venetians had lifted mask making to an art form equivalent to that of violin making, as practiced by the Stradivarius family. The mask shops in Venice were not, on the whole, very useful to her quest (although she also found some remarkable magic shops) but they were fabulous, and she could not regret seeing the wonders within them.
She also spent a good deal of time in Athens, where she stumbled on a number of African import shops. She wandered there through many weekends, studying and searching. Many of the tribal masks were magical. (She had reached the point she could smell magic on a mask the minute she walked in the door.) She toyed with the idea of crossing over into Turkey, maybe checking out Ankara.
But all the most interesting masks came from much deeper south, from Central or even Southern Africa. She wasn’t sure she was prepared to brave the political regimes down there. And she wasn’t sure about their magic, either. It was magic, certainly, but somehow not the same flavor of magic she was looking for.
Come senior year she returned to New York, still thinking. She was still thinking when her roommate Fujiko invited her to spend spring break with her family in Nara.
The Japanese mask shops were entirely unlike their European counterparts. For starters, Halloween was never an issue. Only a handful of ‘American’ stores even acknowledged its existence, and those were really quite funny in their complete and utter incomprehension of Christianity and its norms. Instead, the Japanese markets featured inexpensive and simply made festival masks. These were utterly bewildering to the Westerner, as the Japanese had many festivals, each with its own odd traditions.
There were cosplay stores, but the masks they offered were uninspiring compared to the outfits. There were also art galleries, offering beautiful Kabuki masks—antique and modern—which cost hundreds of thousands of yen. A few of these smelled unexpectedly of magic, but she guessed that was only due to spells worked by ambitious actors to enhance their careers.
Finally, in the back room of an exclusive Nara shop, she found a selection of “special interest masks.” Most of them were for Shinto rituals (and looked to be the source of the festival mask designs). But others were . . . “for traffic in the spirit world,” the shopkeeper explained (with Fujiko translating) and many of those were . . . reminiscent of that other mask.
Elsa asked to try one on. Most shops encouraged customers to bond with the merchandise. Here, the shopkeeper made peculiar excuses to Fujiko. Some of the masks were said to be dangerous, at least to certain people. Not that the shopkeeper believed in such things, of course. He was a modern man. But still. What if something should happen to Elsa? He would never forgive himself.
She bowed politely. Might there not be one that would do no harm—even if it worked? And if it didn’t work, he had proof they were harmless.
“Well, no,” Fujiko repeated for him. “Only certain people are affected. If nothing happens that only proves that you are not one of them.” Not that he believed in such things, of course.
Whatever he did or didn’t believe, he was clearly intrigued by her proposition, curious to see if anything happened. And his ingrained cultural courtesy made him reluctant to disappoint a customer. Eventually he strolled down the line of masks, and plucked down a very plain one. White wood, overlaid with abalone and silver lines. A small half smile.
Elsa took the mask. It was warm, the surface like velvet. She didn’t love it the way she’d loved the glorious golden mask so long ago, but she liked it. She put it on—and thought for a minute nothing had happened. The shopkeeper murmured to Fujiko, “Even if the stories are true—and there are many stories—this mask can surely do no one harm. It is a scholar’s mask, a mask of Tenjin.”
Before reporting his words to Elsa, Fujiko replied, “Really? I thought Tenjin was bald and had a long beard?”
The shopkeeper explained the mask was not so much a literal image of Tenjin as an homage to Tenjin. Elsa didn’t know who Tenjin was so she just listened. It didn’t register what was happening until Fujiko opened her mouth to translate. “Where did you get this mask?” demanded Elsa. She took the mask off, but could still understand him when he directed her to a supplier in Colombo, in Sri Lanka.
As soon as she got back to school, she checked the bulletin boards for summer jobs. And there it was. A call for anthropology students, interested in acquiring extra credit by working an archeological dig outside Kurunegala over the summer. She knew nothing of anthropology, but the professors wouldn’t have cared if she’d been a kindergartner, once they learned she spoke fluent Sinhalese. AND could read the archaic Brahmin script on the artifacts that were excavated. She whispered thanks to Tenjin. The work was hot, dirty and dull, but close enough to Colombo to retreat there for an occasional weekend.
It took her half a day just to find the shop, located in an older part of town where no street signs identified the narrow passages. Even when she found the right street, she passed the shop several times as she wandered back and forth in search of house numbers. Eventually she spotted a dilapidated door squeezed in between two houses that had probably been very grand when the East India Company took over, but now not so much. She could scarcely believe it led into anything but a pedestrian alley, but she knocked anyway. From the corner of her eye, she saw street vendors backing away in every direction.
The door opened onto a long hallway adorned with religious pictures, and the hallway opened into a large shop, cluttered with a selection of goods that was eclectic, to say the least. Elsa turned around several times, trying to decide whether she was in an antique store or the Buddhist equivalent of Wal-Mart. She had almost concluded it wasn’t a store at all, but a junk yard, when she saw a young man in the corner, perched on a tall stool next to an antique cash register, and reading a book.
A young girl approached her and salaamed obsequiously. “Oh, most gracious Miss, how I acquiring the mostest honor of enabling you?” she enquired in English so bad it was almost incomprehensible.
Something in the accent tipped Elsa off to reply in Tamil instead of Sinhalese. “I would like to see the masks, please.”
Across the room, the young man lifted his head sharply and turned to stare at Elsa. The girl also sucked in her breath and cringed back, but recovered. “Of course. We have many masks,” she replied, a little shrilly. She gestured to a dusty plastic pull-on wolfman head. “Something for Halloween?” She couldn’t know much about Halloween if she thought people might shop for it in July, but the bag with the head in it said ‘Halloween’ on the label (in several languages). “Or are you more interested in something for the theater?” She started walking toward a pile of little silk dominos with elastic bands on the back—like anybody might wear one of those to the theater.
“No, thank you,” murmured Elsa. “Actually, I heard you might have some magical masks.”
The young man in the corner stood up. “Where did you hear that?” When he heard the name of the shop in Nara, he frowned and bit his lip. It took him a long time to say, “I guess you’d better come with me.”
There were a half dozen masks in the dim, little back room. They were all powerful. But they weren’t. . . friendly. Elsa had always wondered why her friend Jessie hadn’t liked—how she could possibly have failed to love—the gold mask, when it was so beautiful. She’d also noticed Fujiko backing away from the Tenjin mask, for no good reason. Suddenly she understood. She did not like these masks.
The green one should have been beautiful, but she hated it. The tall, striped one glared at her, as if suspecting she murdered children in her spare time. The least offensive of them was blue, and looked so cold she found herself wondering if it were actually cold to the touch. She reached out and stroked it with her fingers. They froze in place temporarily; then the mask let her go, seemingly with regret.
“You are brave to touch them,” whispered the girl. Elsa looked at her. She was heavy, and her body temperature was strangely low, not more than 95 degrees. That would be due to her thyroid deficiency.
She turned to the young man. “Thank you for showing me these. You have an amazing collection. But not the mask I’m looking for.”
He cocked his head. He didn’t smile. “Did the cold one give you anything?”
“No.” Then she shrugged. “Well, maybe. You should see a doctor. You’re going to need a pacemaker before you’re thirty.”
He backed up a step, then his lips tightened and he stepped forward again, holding out a folded slip of paper. “If you’re a bearer, you should talk to these people.” The paper was yellow and crumbling along the fold. But the elaborate painted mandala was still crisp and beautiful. She bowed, and tucked it into a gaudy locket, which she bought at the front counter. The mandala was a charm: an introduction to the cult of Shiva at Kapaleeshwarar Temple.
She didn’t have travel money, but there were so many street beggars in India, nobody noticed another penniless student hitchhiking. Never had she been so grateful for Tenjin’s gift of tongues. She’d read somewhere that India hosted 122 major languages, and ten times as many minor ones. She was lucky; she only needed twelve to navigate the streets.
The Shivites did, indeed, honor the charm and welcome her. In fact, they said she had been touched by the god, and therefore belonged to them. They locked her in a cell, and only let her out to perform chores under guard. They fed her nothing but lentils. Often the lentils were drugged, and she was dragged out, semi-conscious, to participate in (or at least attend) inexplicable rituals.
They also showed her their masks—of which they had many. Their masks were the most powerful she had ever seen—it made her tremble just to be near them—and they were all hideous. Sometimes at the rituals, they made her wear one of the masks. That left some scars. At least she thought it did. Afterwards, she could never remember anything but vague nightmares. Not that she tried very hard to remember.
Over time she grew habituated to the drugs. She woke up one morning clear headed enough to decide it was time to escape. She was generally malnourished, getting a bit anemic. Not to mention the effects the drugs were having on her nervous system. Enough was enough. She stood up from her uncomfortable pallet, every joint creaking in protest. She walked to the door. “You should open,” she said to the door, entirely forgetting that inanimate objects didn’t usually engage in conversation.
“What will you give me if I do?” replied the door. She stood a long time trying to decide on an answer. Her head was not as clear as she had originally supposed, and she was beginning to remember about doors not talking. Besides, what could she possibly offer? Perhaps the door sensed her quandary. “Some blood would be nice,” it told her. “Not very much. Just a few drops of iron to soothe my rusty hinges.”
She looked down at her arm. There were many slash marks. Apparently she’d spilled a lot of blood at Kapaleeshwarar, whether she remembered it or not. So what was a little more? She raised her wrist to her mouth and—since she had nothing sharp—she bit, taking care to select a spot close enough to the vein to bleed freely, but far enough away to close up before she bled out. Belatedly she wondered when her teeth had grown sharp enough to tear flesh. No matter, the door was happy. The lock turned. She knew the way, even without remembering.
She had almost reached the part of the temple which a determined tourist could reach when an acolyte appeared in front of her. He paused to look shocked, and then came toward her scowling. He was big and muscular, so she guessed they hadn’t forced him to live on lentils. It occurred to her she ought to be afraid. But she wasn’t.
“You can’t stop me,” she informed him quietly, almost politely, as if it were something he might want to know. “Shiva loves me.” Strangely, he didn’t stop, and she wondered if Shiva would be annoyed with him. She didn’t doubt that Shiva loved her. She remembered Him smiling. Then she shuddered so intensely she nearly fell down. Shiva smiling was not something a mortal wanted to remember.
When she had caught her breath, and pushed herself up from the wall she was clinging to, she noticed the acolyte lying on the ground, with blood dripping out of his ears. Did I do that, she wondered, and started shuddering again. No, no, I couldn’t possibly have done that, she decided a little desperately. I’m not a killer and I’m not a god. Maybe Shiva did it.
She walked out of the temple, and picked her way through the crowd of sightseers and worshippers until she found a police officer and asked for directions to the American Embassy.
The embassy put her through several tons of paperwork, and offered her a ticket back to the States. She took it. There was nowhere else to go. She was bone weary, and out of options. Even if she had the slightest clue where the golden mask was, she was too used up to pursue it. Maybe later, when she’d had a chance to rest and rethink, she’d go after it again—because deep down inside she still wanted it—but not now. For now she would just have to limp home and lick her wounds.
She looked up Jessie who’d gotten married and was now getting divorced. It was good to hear her voice again. Comforting and familiar. Jessie said she felt the same. So they met for a girl’s night out. That was either a big mistake, or the perfect thing to do. Because several drinks in, she found herself confessing about Kapaleeshwarar. “Wow!” cooed Jessie. “Sex slave in a Hindu Temple. That sounds exciting.”
“It wasn’t,” said Elsa. “And I wasn’t a sex slave. For sex, you want Vishnu. Mostly I had to clean the blood off the altar after sacrifices.”
Jessie’s eyes widened. “Hindus have blood sacrifices!?!”
“Just the secret cults. Hey, Shiva’s the Destroyer.”
“Still crazy. What were you doing there, anyway?”
Elsa froze. She’d never told Jessie anything, ever. Because Jessie’s father had kept her from her heart’s desire. Was that Jessie’s fault? Should she. . . could she speak the truth to her friend at last? She took a deep breath. “I was following the mask.”
“Mask?” Jessie screwed up her face and cocked her head. “You mean Papa’s mask? That crazy, lopsided, stripey thing?” She fell back in her chair with her mouth open. “All that for a horrible mask.” She took in a long, ragged breath. “That is way beyond crazy.”
“I know,” whispered Elsa.
Jessie continued to stare. “Wow. That’s so awful, I don’t know if I have the heart to tell you.” She stopped. Elsa stared at her, willing her mouth to open. Finally she continued. “Hope this doesn’t make you feel too stupid, but the mask’s not in India. It’s in the back of Papa’s shop, like always.”
“No! He sold it! Years ago!”
“Buyer changed his mind. Sold it back to Papa. Took a loss on it, too. Said it was haunted. Oh, Sweetie, you shoulda asked!” The two of them sat for a moment, buried under the weight of Elsa’s misspent years. Eventually Jessie continued, “I can’t make all that crap up to you. But maybe I can talk Papa into selling you the mask. It’ll be expensive, but you can work out a payment plan.” She took Elsa by the hand and led her out of the bar.
It was late but the antique shop was not dark. Jessie’s father was still in his office, updating the inventory. Elsa stood for a moment in the cool, soft, dust free air. Usually when she revisited old haunts, she found them smaller, diminished somehow by the temporal distance. Not the antique shop. The ceilings still seemed impossibly high, the towers of stacked merchandise as mysteriously precious as a dragon’s hoard. She felt small and awed in a way she had not felt since childhood.
Then Jessie’s father came in. When he saw Elsa, he froze. It seemed like years before he whispered, “You’ve come for the mask.”
“I have,” she said, and walked right by him to the back. There was the cabinet. There was the mask. The door came open at a touch. When she picked up the mask, her heart flowed joyously into it, leaving her—for a moment—too intoxicated to put it on; when she did—as always with masks—for a moment nothing seemed to happen.
Behind her, Jessie’s father whispered, “I didn’t mean to be cruel. I was only trying to protect you.”
She turned on him, still holding the mask to her face. “Protect me from the only thing in the world I wanted?” She sighed. “Now I have it, I will never want for anything again.”
“No,” he agreed. “You won’t. Not ever again.”
She started at the dark note in his voice. “You told me once it was the saddest mask in the world.”
He nodded. “You must know by now that masks always take their toll. The price for this one is all your desire. But I suspect that’s a price you’ve already paid.” He shook his head. “It seems to me that most of the joy in life lies in the wanting, the striving. But perhaps you will see it differently.”
Perhaps she would, she reflected. For the moment, it was very pleasant to have what she wanted already in her hands.
Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller, Mirror Maze. Her previous novel, Blade Light, was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe, and her shorter work has appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, Another Realm and Infinite Science Fiction. Horror fans will enjoy her ‘Blossom’ series in The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5. Please visit her website at www.michaelejordan.com while waiting for her steam-punk adventure, Jocasta and the Indians.