Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Wearing the Mask: A Tale of Alyria

Suddenly, he awoke. Sweating, he panted in the darkness. Was it a dream? His mind was muddled and confused, still swathed in the mists of sleep. He groped for the light switch and turned it on. The pale blue glow of the single bulb illuminated the room. It was still the same as always. The bed, the small table, the single chair. He looked at the water clock. Was it really that early? The chime had not yet sounded to awaken him for work. How he wished for a window. He did not have a window, but he was hopeful that, with hard work and dedication, he would receive one. Some day. It was one of his fondest dreams.

Dreams.

Memories of last night trickled into his head, like water in the water clock. It could not have been a dream. They had all been there. She had been there. How could she be a dream?

“How could she not be a dream?” whispered a cynical voice in his head. He ignored it, trying to remember what had happened. Too much strong drink, too much excitement. His eyes fell on the robe, tossed carelessly on his chair. And his mask….

His mask lay on the table. Its empty eyes stared at him accusingly.

And he remembered.

***

The sun was setting over the western wall of the Ark. He looked up at it, wiping the sweat from his brow. Almost dark. Good. Soon the day would be over and he would have a chance to rest. Tonight the section kitchen was serving real venison, hunted in the forests outside the Ark. Rumor even claimed that a musician from one of the colonial villages would be performing, singing and telling tales of the world outside the Ark. It would be a pleasant evening.

But until then, there was still work to be done. The Interior Forest needed to be maintained. He returned to weeding his flowerbed. Ever since he had been placed in a birth crèche, the Choosers had earmarked him for this duty. Their decision had proven to be wise. He had a natural gift with plants. Under his care they bloomed and flourished. The Mask-Maker who had been assigned to craft his first duty mask had noticed as well. His mask was golden, etched with blooming irises and finely detailed ivy vines, twining on his cheekbones and curling around the eyeholes. “Your face will shine like the sun,” the old Mask-Maker had said, “and will remind us of our future in the green growing world.” How he had glowed with pride as he had stood before the community and had received his first duty number and his first mask. 74-336-0-0-115. It was carved on his mask and burned into his heart. He smiled at the memory.

But it had been four years since his masking, and his pride had long since faded. Doubt had crept into his mind. Four years spent weeding the flowerbeds? How could this be service to the Ark? Did the Choosers not care that his abilities were squandered here? He wanted to be able to do so much more. Above all, he wanted a window in his meditation chamber. Just a simple window overlooking the Interior Forest. Surely that was not too much to ask.

One of the other gardeners glided over to him. Her eyes peered out from a mask inlaid with gold and brown leaves and her robe rustled like a tree in spring. 69-336-20-51-115 was written on her forehead. “So, 74,” she said, “what are your plans for this evening?” Her eyes sparkled like dewdrops. “Going to the concert?”

“Well, uh, I don’t really know yet,” he said. “Er, perhaps I will just retire to my meditation chamber and consider my service to the Ark. He winced even as he said it. “How stuffy you sound,” he thought. Even the section leaders rest once their duty cycle is completed.

Her eyes laughed at him. “I would not want to keep you from your meditations,” she said coolly. “But, if you were not otherwise occupied, I would like to spend some time with you in…conversation.” She laughed as he stammered his acceptance. “I will meet you after the evening meal outside the dining hall. Do not be late, for I will not wait.” She turned and glided away and he tried to return to his work. But in his mind, her silvery laugh still echoed, and her sparkling eyes hung before him.

It seemed to him that the meal would never end. He hadn’t cared for the venison, although he had eaten it dutifully. (“The resources of the collective should never be wasted,” had been the Regulation preached during the last convocation.) This cycle he had been seated by a couple that had just been assigned a child. It had been challenging. The child had squalled all dinner, despite his mothers’ attempts to soothe him. Finally, in a fit of rage, the child had thrown his bottle, which had splattered everyone at the table with warm soymilk. The wastage of food had been noted, and the section leader had reprimanded the mothers. It had been a shameful scene, and he had been glad when the chime had sounded, signaling the end of the meal. He hurried to return his meal dish to the Server and rushed through the ritual of thanks. Then he slipped from the room.

69 was waiting for him by the section’s notice board. She laughed as she saw his milk-spattered robe. “Sitting too close to a young one?” she asked.

His pride was stung, so he quoted one of the Regulations. “The children of the Ark are the future of the collective.”

“Very true. Very true. Now come quickly,” she said, pulling him down a darkened corridor. He had never been this way before and soon became lost in the twisting maze of dark corridors. When he asked where they were going, she hushed him. Hurt and confused, he continued to follow her.

Soon they came to a door. 69 slid a punch card into the slot and the door creaked open. Upon entering the room, he stopped in amazement. It was no room. It was outside. They were on the roof of the Ark. 69 closed the door behind them. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, her low voice thrilling through him. “Look to the east. Do you not see it?” He turned and saw the blood-red Weeping Moon rising over the mountains. She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around him. “Isn’t it amazing how something so deadly can be so beautiful?”

He froze in stunned amazement. No had ever touched him like this. It was definitely forbidden to one of the Servants. (“The body of a Servant is given to him by the collective, and he shall use it in the service of the collective.”) And yet, he thrilled to the feeling of her soft arms wrapped around him. Indecision wracked him.

She spoke then, softly, barely able to be heard over the cool wind that blew across the roof. “I’ve wanted to bring you out here for so long. Ever since I laid eyes on you, I knew that you would be the one. You are so in love with your plants. It’s like they are your own children. I see you talking to them as you water them, telling them your little stories. That’s how I knew.”

He pulled away then, turning to face her. “69? What are you saying?”

She stepped back as well. “Don’t call me 69,” she said. She took a deep breath. “I have a name.” Pause. “Would you like to hear it?”

He surprised himself by answering her. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I would love to hear your name.”

She hesitated. “I cannot tell you my name without showing you my face.” Another pause. Then, in a tiny voice, “Will you look at my face?”

He felt a tightness in his throat as he whispered, “I would love to see your face.”

Her hands came up to her face. Slowly she lowered the mask. She was beautiful. Dark skin like chocolate. Deep brown eyes. Black hair falling in ringlets. “My name is Autumn,” she said. Her hands reached for his mask, and he did not resist.

They made love that night on the roof of the Ark, their entwined bodies bathed in the blood red light of the Weeping Moon.

***

He turned the mask in his hands, watching it catch the light. The next few weeks had been a blur. He and Autumn had met secretly every night, sharing their passion. And they had talked. She had been born into a birth crèche in one of the colonies, so she had many stories to share about the outside world. She told him of first seeing the Sea of Mist, with its billowing clouds and rumbling thunder. She spoke of early mornings in the forest, when the fog still clung to the trees like a wispy veil. And together they chose a name for him.

A tapping at the door startled him from his reverie. “Helios!” a voice whispered. “Helios! Open the door.”

He looked from the door to the mask, from the mask to the door. He did not move.

“Helios!” the voice hissed again. “Helios!”

It was Autumn.

***

“Where are we going?” he asked. It was part of the nightly ritual. She would whisk them off to some undiscovered side corridor, where they would yield to their passions.

“You’ll see,” she answered. “Tonight I have a special surprise for you.”

Light flooded from the opening door, dazzling them. “Give the password,” a harsh voice demanded. Autumn spoke quietly. “Very well. You may enter,” the voice said.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, he could see that the room was full of people. Some sat on benches by the tables. Others lounged on the floor or slouched against the wall. Each wore the robe and mask of the Servants of the Ark. He turned to see a huge man, dressed in a black robe, closing the door behind them. “My apologies, good sir,” the man said, “but we cannot be too careful. Autumn understands this. My name is Miyamoto Hercules Washingon, and I am the leader of this group of the Named. I would like to talk further with you, but first I must begin the ceremonies.” The man pushed past him before he could speak and took his place in the center of the room.

“My friends, we are gathered here today as those who are Named. Come, shed your masks with me for a while, and revel in your freedom!” And without further ceremony the man pulled the mask from his face and threw it to the floor.

All across the room, others followed suit. Some cast their masks to the floor, while others spit or trod upon them. Autumn removed her mask with a yell of glee and cast it to the floor. He removed his mask more slowly and placed it carefully on a nearby table.

Someone thrust a bottle into his face. “Here, drink!” the person said. He sipped from the bottle and began to cough violently. “What is that?” he demanded, once he had recovered. But the person was already gone. He looked around the room and saw that it had dissolved into chaos. The bottle that he had sampled was being passed around the room. Incense had been lit, and the sweet-smelling smoke was beginning to fill the room. Someone was playing music. All around him celebrants reveled. He shrank back to the wall, looking for Autumn, but he could not see her. So he began to pick his way across the room. Finally he saw her, seated at a table with the big man who had started the ceremony. He stepped around a ménage a trois and pushed through the crowd that was forming around the trio, trying to reach Autumn. When she saw him, her face lit up. “Helios! Sit down with me. Miyamoto, have you met Helios?”

The big man smiled and put out his hand. “Just in passing. How are you doing, Helios?”

He looked at the big man in confusion. What was he supposed to do? Autumn laughed. “Helios, you’re supposed to take his hand and grip it tightly. It’s a personal gesture of greeting that Miyamoto made up. Don’t you think that it is much more personal than the Servant’s Salute?” She mimed it, mocking. “Hands to heart, hands out in service.” He winced.

The big man noticed. “Come, Helios. Why do you make that face? Sit and explain to us your feelings. We are listening.”

He sat down, painfully aware of the racket from the three in the middle of the room and their cheering audience. He began to speak but began coughing on the incense smoke that drifted through the room. The big man stood up and pounded him on the back. Gagging, he threw up onto the table. “What a wonderful idea!” someone shouted. Soon, several others had gathered around the table, attempting to vomit as well. He stood up weakly, reeling from the clashing odors in the room, disoriented by the smoke, dazed by the noise and confusion. Two men were standing on the table now, punching each other violently. The crowd in the middle of the room cheered. The room spun. He tried to scream, but no noise came. Stumbling from the table, he fled the room.

Autumn found him in the corridor, curled against the wall. “Helios, what is the matter?” she asked.

He looked at her incredulously. “What is the matter?” He waved at the room. “You cannot tell?”

“No. They are exercising their freedom.”

“Their freedom?”

“Their freedom to act for themselves. To choose their own lives and destinies, instead of being subjected to the Councils’ decisions. For this night, they can do as they please. What is so terrible about that?”

He stared at her. “But did you not see what they were doing? The drinking, the arguing.”

She shrugged. “What business is it of mine to judge what they are doing? It is their choice.” She held out a bottle to him. “Here. Drink.”

He knocked the bottle from her hand. It shattered against the wall. Their eyes locked for a moment.

He looked away first. “I am returning to my meditation chamber. I can only hope that the section bath is still open.” He stood up. “Goodbye, Autumn.”

“Do not leave,” she begged. “Stay with me a little longer.” She held open her robe. “You will be glad that you did.”

He stared at her in disgust. “The body of a Servant is given to him by the collective, and he shall use it in the service of the collective,” he quoted. “Remember that, 69.” He turned down the corridor.

Her voice reached him. “I am pregnant.” He stopped. “I am pregnant with your child. Tomorrow morning I am leaving the Ark. There are Named in the outlying colonies who will take me in so that I can give birth to the child. It is what I have always wanted, Helios. A child of my own, one that I can name and love and raise by myself, without the Choosers taking him away or telling me what to do with him.”

He turned back to her. The open door framed her silhouette. Her robe still hung open, but her face was hidden in shadows. “Come with me,” she begged. “Come with me. Together we can raise our child.”

The big man loomed in the doorway. “Autumn, are you coming in or not? I have to keep this door closed.”

“Tell me,” he said, “did you really love me? Or did you just love the idea of loving me?”

She was silent, her shadowed face unreadable.

“Autumn,” the big man said. “I need to close the door. Besides, I think that you are wanted inside.”

He turned away and walked down the corridor. Behind him, the door slammed shut.

***

“Helios! Let me in!” she whispered. “We do not have much time. They will catch me if I stay too much longer. Let me in!”

He held the mask up to his face. Funny how different the world looks from behind a mask. He turned it over and looked at it.

More tapping. “Helios!”

His finger traced the ivy on the golden mask.

“Helios! Please! I’m begging you!”

His hand brushed over his duty number.

“Helios! I’m leaving now. Are you coming with me?”

The water clock chimed. All over the Ark his fellow workers would be stirring. Soon the Ark would be awake. He would need to hurry if he was going to be at his duty station on time. He could almost hear his flowers were calling to him.

A vision of Autumn passed through his mind. Those deep brown eyes…

“Helios!”

The light gleamed off the mask as he stood.

It was time to go.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Crystal said...

So what do you think he did? Did he got to work or go with her? I think he went to work.

4/19/2005 02:16:00 PM  

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