Night of Masks
Enrique P., a Professor in a well-known university of the capital, and Fabian G., an accountant in one of the Ministries, found themselves one weekend in a small city on our southern coast. The two friends had a hard time explaining to themselves how they had ended up there. Neither was the type to leave his neighborhood, let alone the capital, if it wasn’t for a previously scheduled, well-defined event. They usually were either immersed in their work or simply followed long-established routines. But that weekend, the stars had aligned themselves in a very exceptional way. Perhaps Enrique’s wife had wanted him out of the way because she was organizing a meeting with all her female cousins, maybe there was plumbing work in Fabian’s house…Who knows? That part of the story doesn’t concern us. The fact is, here they were, fresh off the train, suitcase in hand, not knowing what to do with themselves. They were walking with that mindset through a sort of no man’s land towards their hotel when a red- coated British soldier from the times of the American Revolution passed by them. He was followed, a few minutes later, by a Napoleon running in the same direction. Fabian and Enrique, who in general had no humor for such distractions, chose to ignore them and quickly took refuge in their hotel, where a receptionist who by his facial expression made it clear that it would take an inhuman effort on their part to get him to like them, informed them that Carnival was being celebrated in the city that weekend.
This should have been an irrelevant piece of news for both men, for they had brought their work along with them and were prepared to immerse themselves in it during the whole weekend. But things didn’t quite work out as they had planned. What with the noise filtering through the paper-like walls of the rooms and other organizational details which left much to be desired, they soon understood that it would be impossible to work in the hotel. A quick exploration of the surroundings made them realize that the same would be true for any public space, café or the like.
For the Professor, a short, plump man with curly hair and a curly beard, was constantly absorbed in his own ideas and got distracted when anything interrupted their flow. As for Fabian, tall and thin, fortyish like the Professor, with a pale but not unhandsome face, he was a man of details who got nervous when things didn’t exactly fit into his own scheme of the universe.
Without the possibility of work, the days promised to be unbearably long. Though they had decided not to move from the hotel, boredom finally forced them to take a stroll towards the sea when the evening was about to fall. But they couldn’t go beyond the main street, which had been cut off because of the Carnival parade which had just begun.
Having no other choice, they set out to watch it along with the people who were lined up on the sidewalk.
A band with trumpets, tubas, drums and other percussion instruments was followed by a long truck with flashing electric lights from the top of which acrobats, people disguised as different animals, kitschy beauty queens and overly made-up princesses greeted the onlookers. Then came a group of women in miniskirts and green sweaters dancing in the company of a few men, accompanied by an old VW van painted all in green.
“Well, they dance well at least” said Fabian.
“Uh, hum” said the Professor.
He was upset because while standing there, some work-related problems which had been buried somewhere in his subconscious had popped up in his mind; but now that he was ready to attack them, he had no means of doing so. Those dressed-up parading figures had absolutely no interest for him; even as he watched them, his thoughts irremediably wandered towards abstract concepts.
Fabian’s preoccupations were of a somewhat different nature. He was disturbed by the proximity of the people around him, very specifically by the possibility of coming into physical contact with someone. In the crowd, there were children, more and less enthusiastic parents, teenage girls with thick lipstick and nose rings eating sunflower seeds, kissing couples, old men watching impassively, Latin Americans, Arabs…but for the moment (the crowd) wasn’t thick enough to keep him from at least appreciating the aesthetics of what he was watching.
A troupe of dancing couples passed, escorted by another car with flashing lights. The men had cylindrical hats; the women, light yellow-red-white dresses. Another marching band followed. In-between the two, young men and women in shorts did balancing acts on long sticks. The Professor had unwittingly fixed his eyes on the legs of the dancing women. It was at first a meaningless, neutral, weary gaze which by virtue of repetition progressively softened: there were more and more legs, some long, some shorter, all barren, moving harmoniously, allowing quick glimpses of the colorful underwear underneath the skirts, reminding the Professor very vaguely of some sensations from the past.
But then a thought which took its time to crystallize…
“Say”, he said turning to Fabian, “those dancing couples which just went by…Did you notice?”
“Yes, I did”, said Fabian, “All the men had Down’s syndrome. And the women who marched before them belonged to an association against gender violence.”
The parade continued. Mythological characters, fairies of the woods and of the seas, more dancers in folkloric dresses of different countries… The number of people around Enrique and Fabian had been growing with the addition of children with luminous antennae and plastic swords; several gorillas; a group of old ladies dressed in fur coats – totally unnecessary, given the weather- who had apparently just finished having their hot chocolates in a nearby café; more Latinos and mestizos, and others.
Enrique also noticed that a few among the dancers were transvestites.
Right next to him, two giggling Arabic girls in religious headscarves were taking a selfie with the transvestite dancers as a backdrop. He almost smiled at the contradictions contained in that scene.
Meanwhile, the last dancers had given way to another truck, from the roof of which people in masks and pointed hats threw more confetti and candy to the spectators.
What really drew his attention, however, was a ballerina, all dressed in white, who was going round in circles up in the air, right above the truck, apparently with nothing that tied her anywhere. She was ethereal like a fairy (…) which illuminated the night.
Fabian was getting more and more irritated by the increasing number of people near him. Several times he tried to change his position with the hopes of establishing some kind of safe haven, with no success. In the process he bumped into a Darth Vader, almost caused the explosion of all the balloons carried by a street vendor, was caught in-between a long-haired beer-smelling relic of the seventies and the big breasts of a teenage girl, insulted a bunch of children and their parents who were blocking his view by standing where it was technically forbidden to do so. Finally he gave up.
“Let’s get out of here”, he shouted to Enrique.
“If you see a way, tell me. I’m ready to leave”, Enrique shouted back.
The multitude had begun to move rather chaotically in different directions, indicating the end of the parade. This made it even harder for the two men to stand their ground. They tried not to lose each other.
Out of the blue, the ballerina in white appeared near the sidewalk, not far from where they were standing. She greeted some of the people as she walked.
The Professor, who couldn’t keep his eyes off her, said to her: “What you did up there is amazing”, as she came close.
“Thank you.” She smiled with the most beautiful smile. Her eyes glittered with childlike enthusiasm. “I was attached to the truck by very thin wires”.
“Still, it must be quite hard”
“I’ve been doing it since I was a child”, she said with a very natural voice (with naturalness). “Here, have a mask” she said then.
That’s when they noticed the masks she had been holding in her hands and giving out to the passersby.
The Professor and the accountant were hesitant. They looked at each other. “Take them”, she insisted, “You’ll need them for the celebration that’s coming up” It was the smile that convinced them finally. They each took a mask and put it on.
The effects of the masks began to be felt almost at once. Fabian, pushed and shoved constantly by those around him, started to laugh uncontrollably. Enrique, who had to go back at least twenty years to remember him smiling heartily, tried to get closer to check what was happening but was stopped by the larger-than-life replica of a local politician’s face. He desisted, only to hear Fabian’s voice, a few minutes later, thunder above all the rest:
“You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful!” he shouted to a young woman dressed as a nurse who stood in front of him. “I’m in love with you. Would you marry me please?” He made an act of reverence, as he kept laughing without control. The woman and her Vampirella friend, caught up in Fabian’s infectious laughter, began giggling as well. The Professor wanted to interfere, but a sudden feeling of well-being kept him from trying; instead, he just let himself go along with the masses, having incomprehensibly gotten rid of the fears which normally overwhelmed him in such situations.
A little later he again came across the accountant, who had formed part of a train whose other components included extraterrestrials and walking condoms of different flavors.
“It’s the masks” Fabian shouted to him out of his drowsiness.
“I know”, shouted the other in-between bursts of laugh. “They must have some substance in them…”
“Who knows? But it’s good!”
The rest of the night progressed as a series of disconnected frames. At one point, they found themselves on the beach with a bunch of Nigerian tribesmen playing the drums. Enrique began dancing. Fabian stayed still, his eyes fixed in the distance, as in a dream.
In the next frame, they were in a huge, old building with tall ceilings; a gigantic Carnival ball was taking place, with a different type of music playing on each floor. People in extravagant costumes filled the big salons, the smaller rooms, the marble stairs, the counters….In one of the side rooms, a woman in fishnet stockings and a black maillot attacked the Professor, dragging him to a red sofa where she flooded him with kisses. Someone explained to Fabian that this was the “one-garment” section of the ball. In one corner, a woman wearing only a yellow raincoat was talking to a black man with a hat on.
Then they were crammed with a bunch of people in a smoked-out room of a shadier house. A balding torero flirted with a nobleman from the Ancient Regime. Suddenly, a police car flashed its lights through one of the windows. Some of those inside the room stared in fear, while others laughed. Two policemen came in. It wasn’t clear whether they were real or they were disguised as such.
Then a vision of the streets very late into the night, full of junk and broken glass, the smell of urine mixing with that of the sea.
A blue, limpid morning, forgiving and forgetting everything that came before it, rose over the silent city. In the hotel room, the first one to wake up was Enrique. It took him some time to realize that he was really awake and to get over the surprise of finding himself there again. Fabian woke up a little later.
“How the Hell did we end up here?” he said as he reached from bed to his glasses and to his cigarette case.
“No idea. The last thing I remember is…” “What?”
“Nothing, really. Bits and pieces. Nothing concrete. Very fuzzy.”
“Same with me.”
“Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe we never left this room. In any case, I’m not going to be bothered about it. Look at the beautiful day outside. We can take a walk later on.”
“Maybe so.”, said the Professor caressing his beard, “Maybe it was a dream. But you certainly look too beat up for one who hasn’t left his room. Plus, you still have your mask on.”
“You do, too.”
He walked to the bathroom to take a look at himself in the mirror.
He was surprised. Was that wrinkled, fading being really him? The years didn’t pass in vain. But yes, the mask was still there. Only it fit the contours of the face so well that it was easy to miss if one didn’t look carefully.
“These masks are really tailored to fit the face so well that you’d think they were made to order” he said when he came back.
“That’s right” said Fabian, “Does mine look the same way, too?”
“Yes. Even the color matches the color of the skin”
“Good for them” said Fabian, “There must be some master mask-maker or some kind of a workshop in this city”. Then, dragging himself finally up from bed: “Let’s get rid of them” he said, “Enough is enough.”
But it proved impossible to do just that. Whatever amount of force they applied, the masks wouldn’t come off. Use of soap and water, chemicals, shampoo, scissors or fingernails didn’t work. The masks seemed to be stuck onto the faces by a powerful magnet.
“What do we do now?” asked Fabian.
“Let’s get out of here” said Enrique, “We’ll find a way”.
There was no one in the lobby or at the reception desk. The city that they encountered outside had nothing to do with the one that had carried them on its shoulders the previous night. The streets were empty save for a few clochards, old men and women going to Mass, or some families on meaningless walks. Desolate corners reminded one of death, as they did in any city on Earth at noon on a Sunday. Anything that hinted of the feast that had taken place in those same locations only twelve hours ago had disappeared(?)
“We could try to find the girl who gave us the masks” said Fabian.
“Good idea. Maybe she can take us to the workshop or wherever it is that she got them”
They walked to the somewhat more populated center of town, on their way asking café owners, hotel receptionists, bartenders, police agents and passersby about the whereabouts of the girl. Alas, no one knew anything about her; some of the people they stopped looked at them as if they had escaped from an asylum.
Their search was further complicated by a certain tendency to procrastinate. Fabian interrupted it several times to go and walk on the seaside, while Enrique was often lost in daydreaming. Not to mention the multiple appetizers that they ate in the taverns on their way.
Late in the afternoon, as the hour of the train back home approached, they returned to the hotel. The clerk of the evening before was behind the desk. He barely greeted them, but he had a friendlier expression now, or so it seemed to the Professor. Perhaps encouraged by that, he talked to the clerk when he returned to the lobby with the suitcases:
“Everything was fine”, he said, “but we have a problem”
“What kind of problem, sir?”
“You see the masks on our faces?”
“Masks? What masks, sir?”
“This” He got closer to the clerk, who leaned over to see.
“Uh hum” he said. But it wasn’t clear whether he had seen it.
“We’re having trouble taking them off”, continued the Professor, “In fact, we have tried every possible means, but we aren’t able to”
“Ah, that…” said the clerk, “Didn’t you know?”
“Once you put on a mask, you cannot take it off until next year’s Carnival. It’s one of the basic rules of the festival in our city.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean, sir, that you’ll have to wait until one year from now. The rules apply to everyone and are not subject to any exceptions”
And he flashed a smile which would have been unthinkable the previous evening. “What the Hell!” exploded Fabian, “And the woman who… Find us that woman.”
“Precisely, sir. The woman will be back here in Carnival next year. Then she can help you. In the meantime, no one knows where she is.”
Fabian’s first weeks back in the office were tormented. (full of torments): he felt that he had to hide as much of himself and of his work as he could from his superiors, colleagues and anyone else whom he had to deal with professionally. For this new personality of his did things in a completely different way than the man who had taken off to the seaside town that fatuous weekend. He got a summary view of situations and problems, without bothering much about cumbersome details; informed about the main lines of a solution without being afraid of making small errors along the way; and most important, allowed himself to daydream while he reviewed an interminable series of numbers or stared at the expressionless face of a client (a bureaucrat). He was sure that everyone in the office had, from the very first day, noticed the change that had come upon him and that they were covering for his mistakes for the time being. He reduced his contacts with them to a bare minimum, expecting the inevitable to happen.
But it didn’t happen. Impatient with this lack of reaction, Fabian decided to talk one day to Ms.Juanes, one of the most trustworthy (serious/professional) among his workmates.
“Ms. Juanes (?)”, he said to her, “Have you noticed anything special about my reports these days?”
“Like…anything not entirely satisfactory…even errors, maybe?”
“Not at all. They are as good as usual.”
“And anything else? In my appearance, for example, or in general?”
“In your appearance?” She took off her glasses, had a long, detained look at him: “Now that you say it”, she began to say, jesting… Then she burst out laughing: “Nothing, of course. Everything as usual. What’s come upon you? Why are you asking me these questions? Let me guess…Are you in love?”
“No, no. Nothing at all”
Ms. Juanes had detained her gaze on him long enough for him to remember that she had been good-looking, and that despite the passing of the years she preserved some of that attractiveness. How long had it been since he had really looked at her?
That aside, Fabian was taken aback by her answer. His further inquiries and observations in the next few days, however, confirmed what she had said. No one in his immediate surroundings seemed to have noticed the big change in him. If they did, they were really hiding it well.
In the meantime, the Professor was going through a similar experience. Since his return, he had had an immense surge of creativity in his work, producing ingenious ideas for his research. (Unlike before…) His visual imagination, nonexistent before the weekend trip, had been activated: his ideas now appeared before him not as abstract, fuzzy clouds but as concrete objects or beings. On the other hand, he was also aware that none of those brilliant thoughts would stand a halfway serious scrutiny by his peers. He had, in any case, lost the mental capability to prove any proposition rigorously(?). The same happened with his classes: he went through the movements with the ease that years of experience gave him but he wouldn’t be able to stand an extensive grilling by an attentive student. The funny thing was, the grilling or the scrutiny never came. He continued to be respected as before by his students and colleagues.
He thought that his wife, the person who knew him best and most intimately, would at least have sensed something. He asked her one night in their bedroom.
“No”, she said matter-of-factly, “Why? Did someone tell you something?”
“Now that you mention it”, she said then, “You’ve been a little happier than usual lately. Do you have a mistress?” She laughed.
Enrique responded in kind:
“Not only one”, he said, “Several. In different parts of town.”
“I knew it”. Then, getting serious: “No, I don’t see any major change”, she said, “You’ve had ups and downs before.”
Enrique found this hard to understand. He brought it up when he met Fabian a couple of days later for lunch.
“It’s impossible” he told him, “Either everyone is pretending or…”
“Or they are telling the truth. In which case….”
“You noticed that the masks have blended in completely, didn’t you?” said Fabian, “It’s as though they didn’t exist at all”
“So everyone has been taken in”
“That’s one possibility. Another one is that people don’t notice much in general, anyway”
“Come now. What about the most…”
“Even the most intimate. How much do they really see of you?”
“The changes are big”
“To you. Inside you.”
“That’s just a theory like any other.”
“I’m personally more inclined to think that they are all pretending”
Notwithstanding these doubts, the new state of things proved to be quite a happy one for the two men. Fabian now saw life flow easily, without any of the interruptions caused by his fixations. Enrique realized how much of a weight he had been carrying with him all those years in the form of second-thoughts, worries, generalizations, extrapolations and the like; without them, he felt light as a feather. He saw and enjoyed things as they were. At night, he had vivid, happy dreams, the likes of which he hadn’t had since childhood. In one of them, he was in a silent white world, surrounded by clouds, patches of cotton…In another, he and some friends fell into a hole, at the bottom of which a stream of chocolate carried them to a lake covered by a layer of chocolate…
Unfortunately the masks, in bringing about those changes in them, had left their memories intact. Midway through the year, Enrique started to think that something essential was seriously missing from his life. It seemed to him that his new perspective on things lacked spine. He missed the grey shades of his old self, its distance and coldness which brought him a sense of security. The present outlook was too comfortable, in a way; it lacked sufficient contrast. He had vague visions of certain calculations or analyses he had made in those pre- mask times; visions which, as the year progressed, became more and more concrete in his mind until they were converted into a painful yearning because he was aware that he was unable to produce anything like them now.
Fabian, in his turn, was also getting more and more disturbed by the lack of someone to check meticulously everything that he was doing: someone completely reliable, someone that could only be him as he was before the acquisition of the mask.
Due to a change in the local government, that year’s Carnival in the little town had left the humanitarian themes aside to focus on the classical line of princes, princesses, Kings, Queens, fairy tales and the like. Still, the generous exposition of legs, miniskirts, shorts, tutus, bosoms continued as before. The dancers danced, the hula hoopers hooped, candy and confetti rained, three Magi entered the scene in camels, a long truck full of Grimm characters saluted the public…And there she was again, the lady in white rotating in the air, marking the end of the parade!
Enrique and Fabian made their way among the dispersing crowd and they ended up running into her near the sidewalk. As in the previous year, she had a variety of masks in her hand. When she saw them, she smiled.
“So, you’re back” she said. “You recognize us?”
That childlike happiness, the light in her eyes, again. One could so easily fall in love with her!
“We came back” said Fabian, “to return these masks that you gave us last time. We were told that it would be possible to do that only if we found you here again.”
“Can you take them off and give us back our faces?”
“Of course”, she said smiling, “But are you sure you want that? I have many other interesting masks”.
“Yes, we are…” started Enrique, but Fabian cut him off:
“What other masks?” he asked.
“Here.” She showed them the masks she was holding, each with a different expression: wise, clownish, peaceful, alert…
“We’re not interested, just take off our…” But the Professor who, to his disbelief, saw Fabian hesitate, did not finish his sentence. There was then a silence which probably didn’t last more than a minute but which seemed interminable to the two.
“You can’t be thinking of…” started the Professor again but was stopped cold by the look of a madman that he saw on the face of the accountant.
“Give me this one” said Fabian, pointing to one which could well be depicting a handsome but melancholy face, that of a poet perhaps.
“That’s great!”, said the girl, “You made the right choice, it seems to me. How about you, sir?”
A vision appeared in front of Enrique of him choosing a mask this year, a different one the next year, yet another one the following year, and so on….. He saw all those masks in an endless sequence of reflections of himself, as in the house of mirrors of an amusement park. He felt for a second that he was about to go mad. (insane/ torn apart by all those …)
When he recovered his thoughts, he said to the girl:
“I’ll stick with the one I am wearing.”
By Alber Sabanoglu from Spain