CHAPTER 5: THE MASK
Marie swam languidly through a black sea of sleep that was deep, warm and mercifully dreamless.
When she awoke, the fever was gone and her bed was once again cool and soft.
Seated on a stool by her bedside, Doctor Toureil scrutinised her with two small grey eyes that were cosy beneath great white bushy eyebrows.
“Good morning.” he said quietly.
“Where is Papa?” Marie whispered.
“Out.” was the Doctor’s only reply. In her condition it was probably best that she didn’t know that her father had been ordered to hang three bandits that morning. Three brothers, the oldest twenty one. Even as they spoke they were hanging in a row four feet above the ground, three bodies swaying in the one breeze.
“He’s…” Marie began.
“Yes.” said Toureil nodding slowly.
“Not a soup maker.” said Marie.
The brilliant white eyebrows were crushed together in puzzlement.
“No.” said Toureil after a while “No he isn’t.”
“Why?” Marie asked, “Why did he do that? He killed him. He killed that man.”
“That is his job, chérie. It’s his job to make sure that men who kill or steal don’t get the chance to do it again. It is a very important job your father does.”
“Yes! Yes of course it is, all jobs are horrible. I have to watch people getting sick and wasting away and dying, you don’t think that’s horrible? Your little friend Bernadette, her father has to kill pigs and spend all his life smelling of dung, isn’t that horrible?”
“Well there you go. Work is horrible. Unless you’re rich you have to do horrible things to stay alive. It is the way of things.”
“But Bernadette’s father doesn’t kill people.”
“And that is why he doesn’t get paid the big money. Besides, don’t you think being killed is just as horrible for a pig as it is for a person?”
“Of course it is. Pigs hate getting killed. They are famous for it. Every morning a pig wakes up and says to himself “Oh, God if I get killed today I shall be very put out.””
The fact that the “pig” had a very snooty accent made Marie laugh which she did for a good while longer than she expected because it felt very good to laugh again. Toureil caught it, and the old man and the tiny red-haired girl chuckled together for a few minutes, and then lapsed into silence.
“Lawrence.” said Marie, because Toureil had always insisted she call him by his first name from the moment she could speak.
“Where do you think you go when you die?”
Oh God, Toureil, thought to himself. He really did not want to get involved in this situation. This was for her father to discuss with her, not some old quack who had never had children and who had never given a rat’s fart for philosophy or even religion beyond his weekly Sunday observance.
“Well.” he said, shifting awkwardly in his seat “If you are good, you go to heaven.”
“What’s that like?”
“I am told it’s very nice. I don’t know myself, I have never been.”
“Do you think you’ll ever go?”
“I do not think it very likely, no.”
“What if you’re not good?” Marie asked.
“Ah.” said Toureil. Was this really an appropriate topic of conversation for a girl who had been far closer to death than he had let her father realise?
“Well, then you go to Hell.”
“And what’s that like?”
“Hell, well, it’s not so nice. It’s fiery and hot, and they poke you with things. It is not a nice place. But only bad people go there.”
At the word “hot”, Marie’s mind had conjured up a great red desert that was in the grip of a fever, being scourged by the kind of heat she had endured only a day ago in her sickbed. The Doctor noticed that Marie had stopped breathing.
“Marie, are you alright?”
“I was bad last week.” she whispered “I broke a cup and I didn’t tell Papa and I just hid the pieces in the meadow and he asked me where the cup was and I said I didn’t know…”
“No, no, no, Marie I mean really bad people.” he assured her “People who break hundreds of cups. People like that. Thieves, tyrants, rogues, brigands, killers…”
She had stopped breathing again. Oh God, his stupid ass of a wife was right, he should never open his mouth, it only led to trouble.
“Not your father.” he assured her “he doesn’t count.”
“Why not?” said Marie.
“Because.” said Doctor Toureil.
Toureil had been called away to another sickbed, and Marie was left alone. Her father had returned briefly, and she had heard him moving around in the next room, the floorboards creaking under his weight. He had come in and kissed her forehead and then gone out again without a word of explanation as to where he was going. Unknown to Marie, it was his custom after a hanging to have a stiff drink in the tavern. She lay in bed, her mind a hornet’s nest of worry. Her father killed people for a living. He was a killer. There was no argument that Doctor Toureil could make that was convincing even to a seven year old girl. The fact was as plain as a white wall, her father was a killer.
Killers went to Hell. She knew this from Doctor Toureil and had heard words to the effect from Pére Legére the parish priest as he hurricaned fire and brimstone from his spit-flecked pulpit every Sabbath. But her father wasn’t a bad man, she knew this because he loved her, took care of her, soothed her when she was sick, fed her when she was hungry, cradled her when she was frightened, tucked her in when she was away in other worlds, dreaming softly in the night. Good men didn’t go to Hell. But her father was a killer. And killers went to Hell. And the various facts and arguments sank and rose and turned in her head like chunks of carrot in a stew.
After a while she had gone back into her father’s room, reached under the bed for the mask and had held it in her hand. It was quite small. She had imagined that her father’s head would be bigger. Now that the fever had burned itself out, it looked much less threatening. What was it but a piece of black cloth?
She remember how this mask had stared at her from the gallows, and realised that her father must have known she was there in the crowd, and yet had carried on with his grisly work. And suddenly she was enraged. He had known, he had known, that she was there in the crowd, that this moment would haunt her for the rest of her life, that she would most likely be seeing Robért Hieronimo swinging dead every time she closed her eyes until they closed for good. He had known all this, and still he had carried on.
And perhaps out of an urge to hurt him, perhaps out of some dark desire, perhaps out of nothing more than childish pique, she pulled the black mask over her head. Inside, it smelt sour, as if someone had sweated in fear into the fabric. She could hear her breathing, strange and animal like, reverberating around the mask. The eyeholes were too far apart, so she stared through one hole with her right eye.
She looked around the room. There was Papa’s bed. There was the doorway, there was the kitchen table and the fireplace. She began to understand why he wore the mask. Young though she was, she knew that people wore masks to stop people finding out who they were. Bandits and robbers used masks. Her father used a mask for the same reason. But she now began to realise that there might be another reason for wearing one. As she peered out at the world through the little hole, she felt as if she was spying, peeping through a keyhole at a forbidden world. A world that was nothing to do with her, that did not affect her. Anything she did with the mask on would not matter. Maybe that’s how her father felt. It’s nothing to do with me.
And that was how Luke found her, squatting on the floor in her angel white night dress, with the cruel black mask stretched over her face. Her brilliant red curls ran out from under the lip of the mask and down her shoulders, blazing against the black. And as she turned at his entry, a single green eye looked balefully out of an eyehole.
For four seconds they regarded each other.
Then Luke, fiery tempered at all times, and now with several glasses of ale in his gut, grabbed the mask and pulled it off her with such force that she was flung to the ground.
He held the mask in a huge clenched fist, his eyes burned cerulean and he shouted her name, not calling for her attention, not as the start of a tirade but purely and simply as an expression of absolute fury.
Marie was scrambling up off the floor, her nails scraping varnish in their haste to get airborne, and the shock had drawn rivers of tears from her eyes that she wasn’t even conscious of and she ran into her bedroom and slammed the door, praying that he wouldn’t come in after her. He didn’t. And she lay on the bed, numb as lead, her tear streaked face glinting white in the sunlight from her bedroom window.
She awoke much later in pitch blackness. Her door was still closed, and she could hear voices speaking quietly in the kitchen. She pushed the door open and stood in the doorway. Her father was standing by the fireplace, which was blazing yellow and hot, and he was cast in black silhouette against the flames.
Beside him, although she could not see his face, was a man whose shape would have been recognisable anywhere. She knew the stick figure body, the massive head and the parrot beak nose.
It was as she had opened the door that Monsieur Nogaret had been dropping a dozen golden coins into her father’s outstretched palm, and they glowed brilliantly in the firelight, as if the gold pieces were fire themselves. Both men turned at the door opening, and Luke said nothing, his eyes telling her that she was still in disgrace. His little daughter’s green eyes blazed in the firelight, and told her father that he was not in her good books either. Nogaret, for his part, seemed oblivious to the tension in the room between father and daughter, and had dropped to his knees to study Marie, much as a child might crouch on the roadside to regard a lizard. In the half-light, his deep set eyes looked horribly like empty sockets.
“Ah, and this must be Mademoiselle Dashonde.” croaked the Magistrate in a hideous sing song “I hear you have been ill, my child.”
Marie said nothing. She simply stared at the huge Death’s head, her eyes as wide as green meadows.
“Answer Monsieur Nogaret, Marie.” said her father quietly.
“He didn’t ask me a question.” Marie replied, and she was stunned that she had actually had the courage to say it.
Luke was just about to teach the girl some manners but Nogaret had begun to laugh, a horrible, high-pitched, winding staircase of a cackle, broken here and there with little harsh gasps for air, like the yapping of some nasty, stunted mongrel.
“Oh mercy, Luke, you’ve raised a little lawyer!” he exclaimed “Very true, I did not ask a question. Very astute, you are.”
“Why are you here?” Marie asked him, and Nogaret paused. The tone of her voice had been cold and steely. She was demanding an answer of him.
“Marie!” her father hissed, and his blue eyes blazed.
Her green met his gaze, inch for inch.
“Oh, I’m just stopping by, my dear.” Nogaret wheedled “Just stopping by to chat with your father and pay him for a little business he took care of for me.”
“You mean Robért?” the child asked.
Nogaret’s wrinkled forehead deepened its creases.
“Robért Hieronimo.” said the child, and she mimed being strangled by a noose.
Behind the magistrate, Luke seemed to burn like the fire at his back. He had never been so angry with her.
Finally the light broke over Nogaret’s face.
“Ah yes, the thief. So Luke, your little darling knows?”
“Yes.” said Luke “She knows.”
“Ah well. Inevitable really. You know now not to tell anyone about what your father does for a living, don’t you angel?” said Nogaret “It is very important, for both your sakes.”
Marie said nothing.
“Well. Good night Luke.” said Nogaret, and he turned to leave through the front door.
“How much do you pay him?” Marie asked.
Slowly, as if unsure he had heard anything, Nogaret turned to face the small child.
“What was that, precious?” he croaked.
“How much do you pay him?” she asked.
“I don’t really think that’s any of your business, do you?” he said this last word in such a way that his teeth bared. In the firelight Marie could see that they were thin and grey with rot.
“How much?” she said again.
“Marie!” hissed her father.
Nogaret got down on his knees and looked Marie straight in the eyes. In the darkness she could just about make out his sickly light green eyes glinting in the shadow of his sockets. His nose was barely an inch from hers. He was seated so that he was blocking Luke’s view of his daughter. He regarded Marie for a second, and then with a horrible suddenness his hand snaked out and before Marie knew what was happening he had reached into her mouth and was holding her tongue in a vice-like grip between his index and middle fingers, like a worm in a bird’s beak. All the while he spoke loudly to Luke over his shoulder.
“Luke, the girl is merely curious about Daddy’s work. It is only natural, she doesn’t mean any disrespect…” the pain was terrible, her tongue felt like it was being crushed to pulp, his fingers tasted like grey ash “…no disrespect at all because she knows that if she kept an uncivil tongue in her head her father would take that tongue and use it as fishing bait, isn’t that right, darling?” The fingers scissored open and Marie’s tongue bolted back into her mouth like a rabbit into its hole and lay on the floor of her mouth, shuddering at its awful encounter.
“Goodnight to you both.” said Nogaret, rising to his feet, his knee-joints cracking like pistol shots.
He stalked out the front door like a thing from the grave, leaving Marie and her father glaring at each other across the kitchen in silent acrimony.
Later that night she lay in bed, her eyes staring blankly at the white ceiling.
She could not sleep, as the swinging figure of Robért Hieronimo had been re-hung behind her eyelids, and to even blink was to watch him dance his deadman’s jig again and again.
And so she stared at the ceiling, at the blankness of it. And she wished she could melt into it, that it would slowly descend upon her like snow and take her into it. That she could be blank. That she could be nothing.
And the hours ground on, every second a hard, tiny inch.
There are only two or three truly silent hours in any day, even in the countryside. Those hours when the cat and fox have finally returned to their dens, and the birds have not yet started clearing their throats for the dawn chorus. Then comes a few brief hours where true silence finally falls on a house. And it is during this time that a young girl will find that her ears can pick up sounds that she could never hear during the roaring daylight hours. And once those sounds are picked up, it is impossible to put them down again.
It started at around four in the morning. Or rather, that is not when it started, but when she started to notice it. For the sound had always been there. For all she knew, it could have been there her entire life. But it was only now, in the most silent part of the night, that she became aware of it.
And it was a tiny sound, so dim that even now she had to strain to hear it.
And it was unlike any other sound she had ever heard, the closest she could think was a buzzing fly. And once she had noticed it, once it had found it’s way into to her head, she couldn’t shake it. It buzzed constantly, a low, irritating whine. She tossed, and turned, and stuffed her head under the pillow until she had to come up for air. And each time it seemed to grow louder. Finally, with a frustrated grunt she swung out of bed and started to look for the source. She checked the corners and the walls, looking for an insect, or…well whatever it was. Nothing. She couldn’t see anything. She went back to bed, and tried for twenty minutes to ignore it. But still it persisted, still it buzzed, still she ground her teeth and stuck her hands over her ears until they were rubbed red. Out of bed again, and this time she tried to listen as carefully as she could, trying to track the sound down. And slowly, she followed it. Back towards the bed, down on her knees and finally, under the bed itself. And it was only when she looked up from the floor to the base of the bed, with it’s crisscrossing grid of wooden boards, and dust and dead, grey cobwebs, it was only then that she realised she was dreaming. For crouched in the centre of the base, clinging to the mattress between two slats, was the single largest spider she had ever seen. It was maybe half the size of her palm, and jet black. She felt sensation run through her that was at once familiar and strange. Familiar, because she had felt the same ripple of emotion when she had seen the rabbit in the meadow. It was a jolt of wonder, a silver-white rush in her veins, at coming face to face with a wild, living creature. But the other side of wonder is terror. Crouched under the bed, watching this spider that was so grotesquely large it couldn’t be real, was at once a kindred experience to her encounter with the rabbit, and it’s total opposite. But as her eyes adjusted to the murk she began to realise that there was something even more unusual about the spider than it’s size, or the fact that it was emitting such a strange buzzing. It looked, the more she studied it, like the knives and forks left out on the table, like Papa’s shoes resting by the fire place. It was a dead thing, not a living thing, an object.
And though every instinct in her screamed against it she reached out and grabbed it. It felt hard, cold, and utterly un-alive. She pulled at it, but it gripped the base of the mattress like a vice. She twisted her face into a snarl and put every ounce of strength into yanking it free. And then there was a blue-white flash and pain reach through her skin and muscles and touched the bone of her arm to it’s very deepest core and she fell into blackness.
When she awoke she was lying on the floorboards, freezing cold with an ache in her arm.
The spider, for it’s part, had not even left a trace that it had ever been there.