CHAPTER 3: THE MASK
She had run home after the hanging, tears burning in her eyes like lime, her chest trying to wrestle breaths between sobs. But when she got home, the house was empty. She wandered the three rooms, hers, her father’s and the kitchen again and again, hoping that he would leap from behind some nook or cranny, or slide out from behind a picture on the wall. She could not accept that he was not here, in this moment when she needed him as she never had before.
She was still young.
Finally she threw herself on her father’s bed, and sobbed quietly, and stared like a hare because when she closed her eyes, she could see in the swirling colours that glowed against the black, the figure of the thief’s body swaying on the rope like a fish on a hook. Finally, she heard his heavy tread in the doorway, and felt his strong, warm hands take her by the shoulders and her head was lifted to his chest to rest there. Her breath came in shallow drags and gasps. Sissss. Hah. Sissss. Hah.
And over the hiss of her breathing, she heard his great heart beating in his chest, strong and slow, like the hoof beats of a shire horse.
“Papa.” she said “Papa…Papa.”
“Hush my love. Don’t think about it.”
“I was sick. They…they…”
“Now. Now. All over now. All over now. Good girl.”
And her father held her close.
Marie would not sleep. Not now, not ever.
Better the crushing tiredness, the eyelids as heavy as mountains and the sensation that her body was dead, and only her mind kept it in some kind of flickering half life than what awaited her when she closed her eyes.
He swung dead. He swung dead and his tongue lolled. The hangman stared cold.
Better anything than that.
By the fifth day she was ill to the point of death. Five days without sleep had all but consumed her, and she lay as pale as marble in her small bed, her once burning curly red hair lying lank and dark over her shoulders, her eyes staring at a place in the wall, as still as green, dead lakes.
A fever, smelling her weakness, had made its home in her, and her grey-white skin burned with an unholy heat. That morning (yesterday morning? last week? ten years ago? never?) a figure had stood over her and said:
“Marie. I am going to Spain to get Doctor Toureil a most wonderful and thoughtful herring, the best in all this land and the other three. I’ll bring him back here and the fish will see how things stand in water and salt. Be brave and guilty. I’ll be back for four minutes. Back for the cold cups. Adieu, and welcome always.”
But she might have misheard him
Then had come a kiss on her forehead that was as cold as Pluto on the sweating pale plain of fever and heat.
She lay in the empty house for hours, burning slowly in her cool white bed.
She knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that no human being had ever suffered like she was suffering now.
The fever gnawed and tormented her, on and on through the sweltering hours.
And then came a moment when she knew she could take no more, that if she did not ease the heat she would burst into flames.
And with a strength that came more from misery than determination, she sat up. She placed one bare foot on the floor, and the foot moved as slowly and delicately as a growing vine of ivy, feeling every inch of air as if checking that it was safe before passing through to the next. With a soft sound of suction her foot gripped the floor and then the other followed. She stood up, shaking like a leaf. But she was out of the bed, out of those detestable sheets that wrapped her in a cocoon of her own sweat and body heat. The air in the house was cool, as the front door was open. Slowly, she raised her arms, the long folds of her white night dress hanging down from them like angel’s wings. Then she began to pad. She tottered out of her bedroom and out into the kitchen and did a slow, uncertain circuit of the kitchen table. The cool air kissed her as she walked, and her poached skin sang shivers in relief, even as her sleep-starved bones and muscles screamed in agony at this most mild of exertions. She finished her circuit of the table, and walked into her father’s room, circled his bed and back out again into the kitchen. She imagined that she must be leaving trails of steam in the air behind her. Her feet carried on like drunkards, veering wildly, her body swaying this way and that. Back into her room and she resisted the urge to collapse on the bed, she would not be lying in the sheets of that instrument of torture while there was still strength in her bones. And there was, at least enough to take her out into the kitchen again. Her arms, exhausted by the effort of remaining up, now flopped uselessly at her sides. Around the kitchen table again, into her father’s room. Stop.
She stood swaying in front of her father’s rough hewn bed.
When she came to a rather weak and grainy consciousness she was lying on the floor in her father’s bedroom, staring into the blackness under his bed.
There was a shape in the shadow, as formless as that mob on the horizon that had carried the thief to his death.
Seized by one of those strange compulsions that afflict those with fever, she stretched a paper white arm into the darkness and her numb fingers closed on cloth. She dragged her prize out from under the bed. A thin, horrible, raggedy scream clawed its way out of her sore throat, red and harsh.
In her hand she held the mask of the hangman. Its empty eyes stared at her from her palm.
She was shaking all over, and yet she could not let the mask drop to the floor. It was as if it had attached itself to her, like a leech, was a part of her now, and would always be, a horrible, black deformity. She spun around upon hearing a noise behind her, and turned to see her father standing in the doorway, and if he had found his daughter lying murdered he might not have had a more horrified expression on his face. And she realised that the phantom that had been haunting behind her eyelids was her own father.
The mask finally flitted down to the ground, lying on the flood as black as an oil slick. Marie followed it to the ground a few seconds later, falling to the floor like a bag of apples.