Carnival and Masque.byTamLin01©
"'Your jesters weep behind their masks, and it is possible that those who seem to you priests have their true faces distorted with the joy of deceiving you. And you yourself, O King in the Golden Mask, who knows if you are not hideous under your adornments?'"
-Marcel Schwob, "The King in the Golden Mask"
"In truth, I often wonder what people look like under their masks."
As she said it Portia was grateful that her own mask hid her blushing face, and she pushed against it to reassure herself it was still there, covering her from chin to forehead. Her skirts brushed the marble floor of the nave as she walked and she kept her eyes on the floor tiles. The masks of the gods stared down at her from the cathedral walls.
"Well," said Father Marlowe, "there's little enough sin in that."
"But isn't it the same as lust?" said Portia. "The gods say that to want to see someone's unmasked face is the same as actually trying to see it."
"But the gods also say that to deny our human failings is to try to supplant them," said Father Marlowe. His mask was a chubby, smiling face of gold, with curling hair at the temples. She noticed that, as he'd gained weight with age, he'd taken to masks that portrayed chubby cheeks and double chins to match his girth. The observation made her uncomfortable for some reason. The cathedral was empty except for they two, and they were heading toward the courtyard and then to the street, chatting as they usually did after her weekly confession.
"The gods give us sin to remind us of our place," Father Marlowe continued. "When you wish to see your husband without his mask, that is a lesson to you from the gods, and you should heed it."
Portia's steps faltered. "How did you know it was my husband's face I was thinking of?" she said.
Father Marlowe's belly shook with laughter. "Because you are a woman, and any woman would wonder about her husband's face after so many years of marriage. In truth, when my beloved Helen was alive I sometimes found myself dreaming about what her unmasked face might look like. Quite wicked of me, but I am as human as anyone else."
They were outside now, walking beside the statues of the masked gods in the courtyard, the spires and masked gargoyles of the cathedral behind them.
"All the same Father, I wish I could rid myself of these thoughts," said Portia.
"Well, there are times when I think we are fortunate to have our human failings<" said Father Marlowe. "Tomorrow is the Hallowmas Carnival, after all, and what would we do at carnival time if not sin?" The priest's voice was tinged with mischief.
"I suppose so," said Portia.
"The word 'carnival' means 'Farewell to the flesh,'" Father Marlowe continued. "We are creatures of flesh, Portia, and Hallowmas reminds us of that. You know, carnivals used to be very different, when I was a boy. Back then we still practiced animal sacrifice."
Portia gasped. "No!"
Father Marlowe nodded. "It was a different time, and long ago." He patted her arm, once. The crowd on the street flowed in two directions around them. Father Marlowe's grinning mask glittered in the late-noon sun. "I always enjoy our discussions, Portia. I look forward to seeing you again. Meanwhile, try to forget about your doubts tomorrow. And try to forget about your guilt too, if you can."
"Yes, Father," said Portia, bowing her head again. They parted ways. Throngs of people moved around Portia, as if she were a stone in a stream. There was an endless procession of gaudy masks and expensive clothes. Bright colors were in fashion in the high quarter this year, and a kaleidoscope of scarlets, azures, violets, beryls, golds and tangerines fluttered by, the men in their short robes and long capes, the women in their long dresses and shawls. Masks were of gold and silver and ivory, accented by jewels and pearls and gilding, as if the members of the upper crust were trying to outdo the gilt framework of the city's soaring towers and graceful bridges and broad pavilions. Portia straightened her own plain dress and shawl and her simple white mask, wondering how these people could dare flout such excess in the eyes of the gods. Then she reminded herself that it was the gods' place to assess people's sins and not hers, and muttered an apologetic prayer.
The Great Bridge that tied the two halves of the city was full of peddler's carts and wealthy merchants meeting for the day's last business. Little enough surprise to see that the maskwrights were all out with their wagons and carts, displaying their most audacious wares in anticipation of the post-Hallowmas buying spree. It seemed that animal masks would be back in fashion this year. Portia paused to look at a gold one in the shape of a dove. It was too showy to be proper, of course, but she couldn't help but look at it, and even to reach out for it, just for a moment, wondering if—
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said the woman next to her. Portia snatched her hand back. It was Beatrice, the count's wife; Portia recognized her blue and purple mask. No two masks ever sold could be exactly alike, of course; that was why maskwrighting was such a demanding trade.
"I was looking at the very same one," Beatrice continued, touching the dove mask with a satin-gloved hand. "But of course it's always so hard to choose what to wear for next season. What a burden such things are."
Beatrice was standing much closer than Portia would have liked. "I suppose it's nice," Portia said, trying not to sound too interested.
"It would suit you," said Beatrice.
Portia's cheeks burned. "Perhaps," she said, again keeping her tone neutral.
"It's high time I got rid of this old thing," said Beatrice, gesturing to her face. "If only we were permitted more than one..."
"That would be a sin," said Portia, automatically.
"Yes, yes," said Beatrice, much more lightly than Portia liked. "Imagine if someone had more than one mask. No one would ever know who they were. They could just put the new mask on and—"
"Become a different person entirely."
Beatrice stopped. "Yes," she said, and then silence stretched between them. Portia started to squirm. "Well," said Beatrice, "it really doesn't matter. The eyes of the gods are on us at all times, except on Hallowmas. They would know if we tried to cheat them by changing masks. That's what Father Marlowe says."
"Quite right," said Portia.
"I do wonder sometimes what he gets up to when the gods eyes are off him. Don't you?"
Portia started, but if Beatrice noticed she said nothing. She bought the dove mask, then invited Portia to dinner with the count after the carnival. "And bring Cassius too, of course," she said. Portia accepted, chiefly to be gracious, and regretted dawdling near the vendor the whole way home.
She arrived just as the gardening staff was leaving to escape the chiding she had been meaning to give them all week about the rose bushes. The kitchen staff had delayed dinner twice while waiting for her to return, and the maids were late leaving because they had to wait for her to come home so they could receive their wages early, since they would not be on duty during the carnival. After she set the house in order Portia went to the east sitting room, where she found Alexander on the chaise lounge with his books spread in front of him. He bowed to her and said "Hello, Mother," before consenting to be embraced. His eyes were bright blue behind his mask; he almost never seemed to blink.
"Hello, darling. Where is your sister?" said Portia.
"Here, Mummy!" said Octavia. Her voice came from behind the curtains around the bay windows, where Portia found her sitting on the window ledge and looking out over the gardens.
"Treasure, what are you doing in there?" Portia said as Octavia ran to her side, pigtails and curls bobbing around her peach-colored mask speckled with stars.
"I was watching the gardeners, Mummy," Octavia said. "And I was listening to them. They were talking about the carnival. It's tomorrow, isn't it Mummy?"
"Yes darling," said Portia. Secretly, she frowned; she hoped Octavia hadn't overheard anything off-color. She would have to tell the garden staff to watch their language. Just another thing to get after them about.
Portia relaxed on the chaise lounge opposite Alexander, supposedly working on her embroidery but rather just letting it sit in her lap while she looked out the windows. Octavia curled up around her knees, lightly napping, and Alexander sat with his books, mumbling the words to himself as he read each verse over and over. Portia watched him at work, wanting to tell him how proud she was of him and but afraid to break his concentration. With as hard as he'd been studying the texts, she had hopes he'd set his aims on being a priest one day. It would do well to finally have a clergyman in the family. But she had not yet asked Alexander what his intentions were, and he had not yet volunteered anything, simply sitting with his unblinking blue eyes behind his mask and watching her, always watching her.
It was another hour before Cassius arrived home. Octavia leapt off of Portia's lap and threw her arms around her father's knees. Cassius picked her up and bounced her in his arms before handing her back to Portia. Alexander brushed the lint off his robes before greeting Cassius with a respectful nod and half-bow. Portia shifted Octavia in his arms so that he could embrace her, laying his brow against hers for just one second before pulling away.
"Darling," said Portia, "it's so wonderful that you're home."
"It's the last day of the tenth month, Daddy," said Octavia. "Do you know what that means? Tomorrow is Hallowmas!"
"Is it?" said Cassius, feigning surprise. "Do you know anything about this?" he said to Portia, shaking his head as if bewildered. Octavia giggled. "And what would a very little girl like you know about carnivals?" he continued, his tone halfway between teasing and chiding.
"Alexander told me about it," said Octavia.
"Did he?" said Cassius, turning to his son. Cassius' mask was slate-grey and bearded, with great black holes for his eyes. The set of the mouth was passive but often appeared to be frowning when his voice and body language made his displeasure clear.
"She asked," said Alexander, not flinching from his father's gaze. "It's one of our most important holy days; it wouldn't do to keep her ignorant of it."
"I suppose," said Cassius, his tone measured and even.
"We can discuss this after dinner," said Portia. She had just noticed one of the wait staff standing in the doorway. They were seated in the dining hall, each of the four of them secured in their own chair back to back to back, each facing a different wall to ensure that they could not accidentally glimpse one another's faces while eating. The staff laid out dinner and then beat a hasty retreat. Once alone and safely looking away, each family member raised his or her mask high enough to dine comfortably. Portia inhaled the scent of roast duck and realized she had no eaten all day. She was famished, but had only just this moment become aware of it.
Cassius talked a bit about his day in the Senate, and then Octavia would not stop asking questions about Hallowmas. "Mummy, why do we go unmasked on Hallowmas when to take off your mask is the greatest sin?"
"Because to go unmasked for a day is to remember why we must be masked on all other days," said Portia. She heard Alexander mouthing the words along with her.
"Why is it such an important holy day?" asked Octavia.
"Because it's when we conduct our most important rites and mysteries," said Portia.
"What are the rites and mysteries?" said Octavia.
"Mostly drinking and fornicating," said Alexander.
"Alexander!" said Cassius.
Portia heard Alexander shrug his shoulders. "That's what the help said."
"Which of them?" said Cassius. Alexander shrugged again.
"I can't remember now."
Portia frowned, and her appetite died.
That night the children went to their separate beds, and Portia shared a quiet moment with Cassius in the hall before they parted to their own rooms. He laid his brow on hers and she felt the hard line of his body through his clothes. A flicker of heat flared inside of her, but she tamped it down; the night before Hallowmas was a night for discipline and self-control.
"I'll be at the North Gate tomorrow," Cassius said.
"And I'll be at the Great Bridge," she replied. They had to know where each other would be so that they did not end up meeting by accident. In theory, one would never recognize an unmasked loved one, but of course, she knew every single part of Cassius' body except his face. She'd heard horror stories about wives who accidentally recognized their husband's birthmarks or scars during Hallowmas but too late not to have seen their faces. How awful, she thought, to look at your husband's mask every day after and know what the real face underneath was like. Awful, and yet she could not stop thinking about it...
They parted. Portia paused by Alexander's door, wondering if he was still awake and if he had overheard them. They had stopped by his door and spoken loudly on purpose, so that he too would know to avoid the places they would be. Teenagers were not allowed to take part in the festivities, but Portia was not so naïve as to think a boy Alexander's age wouldn't sneak out anyway. And what of Octavia, Portia wondered? How many more years until she's out in the streets, face naked for all to see, drinking the gods' wine and inviting men (or women?) to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the wayside gardens?
Portia closed her door and locked it. She undressed in the dark and laid her mask on the nightstand. Before bed, she ran her fingers over her exposed face, feeling the lines of her cheekbones, her nose, her brow, her lips. Her natural face was so unlike her. She lay on her thin mattress and recited orisons to herself until she fell asleep. It didn't take long.
Portia woke with a feeling of unease. She reached for her mask, but no, not today, she reminded herself. Instead she sat up and ran her hands over her horribly bare face again. She listened; the house was completely silent; no children, no servants, no Cassius. She was the last one up and the last one out. Good.
Just walking down the halls unmasked made her feel ill. She was terrified at the thought of some stray, late-rising servant appearing, but there was no one. She went to the window and peeked through the curtains: There were people on the streets. Not many, as the crowds would gather in the public squares and the feast halls, but still she could see them. They were drinking and laughing and some even dancing, all of them dressed in costumes and all of them, of course, unmasked. How awful people's faces are, Portia thought, how terrible the way they move. She watched as a couple of girls, barely out of their teens, stole grapes off the vines covering her walls and ate them one by one, laughing. The way their mouths moved up and down seemed obscene. She closed the curtains.
She wanted to lock herself in, but of course, she could not. Dressing herself (she had no clothes garish enough to constitute a costume, but had made a wreath of flowers from the garden to wear as a crown), she covered her face with a wrapped scarf so that no dawdling neighbors would see her leave the house barefaced. This was permitted, indeed, resolutely necessary, as long as she removed it once she was away from her own home. She walked the empty streets for a few blocks. All the shops were closed except for the taverns, but even the taverns did no real business; everything was free, paid for by the church, and in each of the ale and wine houses you could find revelers dressed as monks and friars handing out libations; these, of course, were the Priests of Misrule, trusted with "guiding" the Hallowmas festivities. A great many of the people Portia passed were drunk, and even those who were not seemed surreally giddy, almost ecstatic, lost in some strange other world that existed only in their minds. This was, of course, expected.
Portia came to the bridge. It was a cool day, and bright. The public buildings were decorated with hanging vines, ripe gourds, cornstalks, and out-of-season flowers; Hallowmas was, above all, a fertility festival, an observation of the largesse of the gods. Here on the bridge, a great wooden idol in the shape of a sacred bull, hammered together from old planks and table legs and broken carts, was the centerpiece of the festivities. Surrounded by celebratory fires, the bull was the ultimate symbol of virility, and countless flagons of sacred wine were broken open against its horns, to the delight of the pious revelers.
Here Portia did away with her scarf, letting the harsh morning light scathe her naked cheeks. She uncoiled her hair from its braid as well, letting it hang free about her shoulders. A girl nearby, who a moment ago had been lost in divine ecstasy, gasped at the sight of Portia revealed, and indeed, her presence seemed to snap many out of their trance. Some of the bolder men made eyes at her, but she ignored them; marital indiscretions were hardly unheard of at Hallowmas, and indeed, they were almost considered holy rites in themselves, but she wanted nothing to do with these half-naked people and their lurid faces. Instead she went to the altar of the bull and picked up an empty chalice, letting a man dressed as a monk pour the sacred wine until it sloshed over the sides. She drank as much as she could in one go, and when her head spun and her knees went weak she allowed herself to fall.
To her surprise, someone caught her. Two strong hands supported her in her swoon and, half-leading and half-carrying, took her to the railing. She leaned on it, looking over the side and becoming somewhat lost in the churning blue waters below for a moment; the wine of the Priests of Misrule was particularly potent this year. Her mysterious rescuer fanned her until she was recouped, then showed her that he had rescued her cup as well. She thanked him for it with a mute whisper and, slowly this time, took a draught. The cold, cold wine soothed her insides. It was only now that she looked at the man who was with her, and when she did her breath caught in her throat; he was gorgeous! Portia had never seen an unmasked man so beautiful before.
The stranger was naked to the waist, and around his head was a crown of grapevines, and the vines trailed down his body. His fingers were stained with crushed grapes, and his skin was strangely dark, like someone who had spent long hours in the sun without covering of any kind. His hair was fair and his teeth were so white that when he smiled it almost blinded her. "May I share this cup?" he said. Portia stammered her consent, and he took the chalice from her; his fingers were very hot, and she trembled for a moment, spilling a few stray drops that ran over his fingers and onto hers. She wanted to stick those fingers in her mouth right then but she didn't. The strange man brought the cup to his lips, emptied it, and tossed it aside, letting it clamor on the stones of the street. Then he took both of her hands in his and held them up in a sign of thanks to the gods; Portia muttered a brief prayer along with him, but for once she was not thinking about the gods.
What am I doing, she thought as she let this stranger put his arm around her and walk with her across the span of the bridge. She could not take her eyes off of him. She should have been disgusted, should have felt sickened and repulsed by this man's shameful, unabashed physicality, but somehow this strange, nameless, divine man, was as beautiful as painted silk, even, as he was, unmasked and half-dressed. She felt a fire inside of her, a heat she thought long extinguished.