Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Fiction #69: Chad Inglis

Masks

The mushrooms had almost no weight; three stalks and as many caps lay in my palm, but I could not feel them. Coloured like dead skin, they appeared to be waiting, and so I threw them in my mouth. Cloying, and nearly rotten, the taste perfectly matched their looks. I swallowed, and made an attempt to dislodge the bits that remained with my tongue.
Adam was laughing at me. I must have been making a face.

“Don’t throw up on the floor alright?”

I nodded, reaching for my water.

“But it’s not just the taste is it?”

“Not entirely,” I replied.

“It’s fear right?” Mark added.

“There is fear.”

“So what is that?”

“Fear of losing control.”

Mark shot a finger at me. He was seated on the couch, one arm behind his head. He looked very comfortable there, as if the room had grown around him.

“Exactly,” he said. “Exactly that. Giving up control. But who’s taking it? It’s not the mushrooms. Or at least, not them alone.”

“You lose control,” I said. “That’s it. Nothing takes it.”

Mark seemed to consider that. I drank my water. It felt very pleasant going down my throat. Already I could feel something, a blossoming at the base of my spine. The edges of my thoughts were no longer definite. Like running ink, one slipped into another. Mark’s living room, that odd collection of mismatched furniture and framed artwork he’d either bought at garage sales or rescued from the street, grew brighter, more highly defined. Observing this change, my chair threatened to consume me, and I stood up and went to the kitchen.

Over the moldering stack of dishes I noticed a single drop of water hanging from the mouth of the faucet. The bead caught the light, and warped it, trembling. Gently it elongated, until at last it hung by an almost invisible thread. My heart reacted badly to this, and I turned away rather than watch it fall. A stone landed on my shoulder, squeezed me; Mark’s hand, and his broad face, wide open.

“What is it?”

“I kind of got lost for a minute.”

“It’s just the kitchen.”

“It is, but that’s enough sometimes you know?”

He laughed. The sound warmed me. (His laugh was often generous, and entirely free of affectation. It’s the thing about him I miss most.)

“I managed to get it,” I told him. A raised eyebrow. I nodded, and reached behind me for the bag I’d been keeping in reserve in my back pocket. Recognizing this for what it was, he steered us both back in the direction of the living room. I threw the bag on the table. The light of the overhead lamp was very hard. My feet carried me to the couch and it reached up to take me. Adam was already examining the bag’s orange contents.

“Who had this?”

“Miner friend of Ashleigh’s.”

“Straight from underground,” muttered Adam.

“How’s it done?”

I took the bag from Adam and dumped the powder into his glass. It did not dissolve in the water, but sort of hung there, suspended.

“Little orange galaxy huh?” Adam said. He took the glass and drank half the contents. Confusion swept over his features.

“It tastes...”

He never finished the sentence. Mark polished off what remained of the water and nodded to himself, twice. There was still a lot of the stuff left at the bottom of the glass, like a layer of rust-coloured silt. I dipped my index finger into this, and dragged the wet sludge onto my waiting tongue. It was rotten metal, a razor’s edge lined with overripe fruit, exactly as Ashleigh had said.

It felt good to do it from the same glass. It felt right, synching our intentions; we put on our boots and jackets without preamble, as if we’d rehearsed the motions. Night embraced us, and the pavement was a vast expanse, orange-lit, dappled with the shadows of trees. The street was ours, and Mark walked ahead, in the middle of the road, his head upturned, sky-gazing. Adam was a reassuring shadow to my right.

“How’s it supposed to hit?” he asked. I’d asked Ashleigh the same.

“She said it won’t. Unless it’s a feeling of being watched.”

“Puts eyes on you huh?”

“She couldn’t say whose.”

“That’s some responsibility.”

“Yeah?”

“To be worth watching.”

I could care less, I thought; it wasn’t up to me or any of us to justify our existence, unless it was in our own eyes. I should take the stuff and sit in a room in the dark and see how that would go over, whether anyone would bother watching then.

“Man tripping in a room,” I said. Adam was puzzled.

“The title of a painting.”

“Never heard of it,” he mumbled.

Mark was waiting for us under the waving arms of a maple. He had his back to the massive trunk, his gaze still skyward. We all craned our necks. The branches moved, crumbling from one point to another, an earth-toned shimmering of dying leaves. One or two dropped from their branches, falling without grace. Adam drifted off, and in due course we followed him. When we reached the campus I left Mark and crossed the deserted road. It was very bright in the glare of the street lamp. My shadow went ahead of me, its shape almost carved from the pavement. To my right was the brick facade of the Earth Sciences building. There was a doorway in the near wall, which led into a kind of circular courtyard. In the middle of this place a small forest had been planted. Bronze plaques engraved with the names of genus and species were situated in front of certain trees. Other plaques were lost in the undergrowth; I doubted anyone had tended to the place in years.

A path of loam bisected the canopy. On all sides the building’s walls could be glimpsed between the trees. At the end of the path was a bench, and on this was a cardboard box.

I approached it. The soft earth absorbed the sound of my feet. Nothing moved. I lifted the box’s lid.

Inside, cushioned in packing foam, was an ovoid block of wood with two gaping pits for eyes. Stunned by what I was seeing, it took me several seconds to assign it a name: an iteration mask, I realized, obviously old, and by the look of it, authentic. I had seen pictures of these in high school. They were used across the Greater Sea, worn by those who’d been touched by the unrevealed god: ascetics, sages, prophets. It was an otherwordly object, unlike anything I had ever encountered before.

A presence edged the space at my left. I looked at Mark. His face mirrored my confusion. I watched his brow working.

“A mask,” he said.

His shoulder twitched, and a worm of panic moved in my gut; I reached for the mask before he could. Little white puffs of packing material came with it, dropping noiselessly to the ground. In my hands the mask was like a hole ripped out of the world.

“There’s two more.”

I looked at Mark. Adam was with him, and their arms were in the box. In an instant they were both masked; Mark’s face, now a black square with tubes to signify his eyes, and Adam’s molded visage, off-white, fat-lipped. Laughter rang in the courtyard. It came from the masks.

It occurred to me that the air had become thicker, and the sound of my breath was very loud in my ears. Later I understood I was wearing the mask.

No matter how many times I look back on that night, I’ve never been able to recall the moment I put it on. Nor can I remember removing it; by the time we entered a restaurant near 4th Bridge, starving, all frantic motion and disjointed voices, I was carrying it. Adam and Mark still wore theirs, their new faces hard-edged in the fluorescent light.

“I know one thing,” came Adam’s voice. “You never find masks!”

Though many other details have been lost over the years, those words have remained, far more powerful than they have any right to be. Even now I can still hear them.

*

That night I failed to sleep; the share house I lived in was rarely quiet, and as I lay in bed I followed with relentless precision as someone busied themselves in the kitchen - opening and closing cupboards, running the tap, their feet falling in hard syncopation. I was nervous without being fully conscious of the fact. Dry air filled my nostrils and I rolled on the confines of the mattress, too wired for sleep and too exhausted for anything else.

I had put the mask on a chair by the window, and I glanced at its backlit shadow throughout the night; finally, its eye-holes encircling the blue light of dawn, I decided it was better to suffer upright than continue to do so in bed. I removed myself to the shower. The reflection in the bathroom mirror was that of a stranger, blank-eyed and nameless. We regarded each other for a moment, and parted in silence.

The mask was still on the chair. I had half expected it to be gone, though I couldn’t have said why. The light that entered through its eyes was no longer blue, but a muted gray. The sky beyond the window threatened snow.

Sick of my own thoughts, I went down the hall to Adam’s room. It was unlikely he was awake, but I knocked anyway.

“Yeah?” he called. His voice had a muffled quality, as if coming from behind a sheet of glass. I shouldered the door. He sat in a chair facing me, still wearing the mask. The full lips underscored its benign expression. I sat down on the floor with my back to his bedframe.

“Can’t sleep either?” I asked.

“Sleep?”

There was something off about his voice, a sonorous, lilting quality I had never heard in it before. I thought it must have been a result of the mouth hole, but looking closer I saw that unlike my mask, his had no holes of any kind; instead, the surface ballooned in convex bulbs, offering the suggestion of eyes. He’d been walking blind all night, and sitting in his room the same way.

“You been up all night?”

The mask tilted. Adam’s fingers moved over the fabric of his pants at his knees.

“All night?”

He was obviously still high. I closed my eyes. The house was very quiet, and I drifted into an uneven sleep. When I jerked awake some time later, I was alone. The light from the window was much fuller, and there was an awful pain in my neck, as if a metal rod or pin had been surgically inserted there. Massaging it, I stood up. Through the window opposite me I caught sight of Adam, still masked, out on the lawn in front of the share house. He sort of turned, or lifted his head in my direction. I waved at him, forgetting that he couldn’t see anything.

I had another shower, the water near-scalding, and again worked the muscles in my neck. Afterwards I went to see if Adam was inside, but both his room and the common area were abandoned. I texted Mark, and was surprised to get a response. He wrote for me to come over, and I threw on my boots and jacket, thinking to collect Adam from the yard, but he was nowhere to be found.

The streets were empty. Wind stirred in clusters of leaves that hung like shredded flesh from the trees. Walking, I had the sensation I was being followed, but when I turned to check there was no one.

The way to Mark’s apartment felt long. Maybe I was moving more slowly than usual; certainly I was not myself. I felt timid, like a microbe under a lens. No one was watching me, I knew that, because no one would care, but the feeling persisted.

Reaching his building at last, Mark greeted me at the door; he looked like I felt. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin drawn and pale. Stubble covered the lower part of his face. He swallowed and nodded rather than speaking, and held the door open by way of welcome. We climbed the decaying stairwell in silence. His room was the last door at the end of a hallway painted the colour of an open palm.

I took my boots off and followed him into the apartment. He crossed the space to his bedroom, where he slouched on the edge of his mattress, reaching absently for a cigarette. He’d supposedly quit, but I refrained from commenting. Once he got the thing lit, the smoke made a single, uninterrupted line to the ceiling. By now, the silence had grown into something monolithic. I thought Mark looked very bad.

“You’re not hungry are you?” I asked.

He shook his head. The gesture seemed to indicate he would not eat again.

“Well come with me anyway. Coffee will help.”

He made no move to get up.

“I had it by the door,” he said. “But it demanded to be moved.”

“Alright.”

He looked at me then.

“I mean it didn’t speak. But the result was the same. I knew what it meant.”

“What are we talking about? Your mask?”

“Yes, the mask. The mask, the mask. What else? I thought I was dreaming at first, because I was dreaming. That was obvious. Everything was loose and slippery, the way it is when you dream, you know.”

“Sure. Dreams aren’t real. I hear you.”

He ignored the sarcasm, nodding and dragging from his cigarette, which he then examined, on both sides, as if he expected to find something written there. At length he set it down in an ashtray.

“This dream was different. You understand? I was dreaming, but something else was in there with me.”

“Something else.”

“The mask didn’t want to be here, that’s all I can say.”

“Alright man, fair enough. So where is it?”

“I threw it out.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Yes. Or no. It was light out already. I don’t know.”

“You need to sleep.”

Some life returned to his face; there was the suggestion of a smile. Talking seemed to be helping him.

“I sound insane right?”

“You don’t sound good.”

“Why did we have to add powder on top of everything else?”

I didn’t respond. He knew the answer as well as I did. We wanted to know what would happen. We were young, and hungry for experience. Any kind would do, as long as it brought us out of ourselves.

“Let’s get some coffee anyway,” I offered. He gestured an assent.

We left the building and braved the journey to Manu’s, a place I’d discovered in Northside the previous summer. Over a plate of eggs and two steaming mugs of coffee I mentioned that Adam had kept his mask on all night, but Mark didn’t laugh like I thought he would. He gnawed on a slice of blackened toast, mechanically taking his coffee. When we left I brought up the subject of his mask.

“You were high throwing it out,” I told him. “It’s probably worth something.”

“You want it you can have it.”

We said our goodbyes outside his building. Left to myself, I rounded the corner and rooted through the trash bins in the alley. The black mask was still there, undamaged. I slung it under my arm and went home.

*

That night a voice dragged me from a dreamless sleep. There were no words that I could hear; it was a muttered incantation, and it stopped as I hauled myself upright. A dark mass occupied the space at the foot of my bed. Before it were the two masks, illuminated in the orange haze from the street lamp outside my window. The masks had been set at the far wall, about a meter apart.

As I watched, the silhouette moved; there was a turning, and a pale crescent was revealed, lamp-washed, lifeless. It was Adam, still wearing his mask.

“What are you doing in here man?”

He made no response, only uncoiled himself from the floor. His lidless eyes appeared to stare at me. Then, without speaking, he gathered the masks and left the room.

I thought about calling him back, but I was too tired. I told myself whatever he was doing could wait until morning. That was a mistake. When I woke up he was nowhere to be found and all three of the masks were gone.

Adam didn’t return that day. I tried calling him, and so did Mark, but he never picked up. In the end, the brief encounter at the end of my bed was the last I ever saw of him; within a month his phone line was disconnected. I got in touch with his parents, but they told me not to worry, that Adam was fine. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. We wondered if he’d had a mental breakdown. It seemed the best explanation.

I felt hollow whenever I thought of him or the masks we’d found. To fill this void, I began doing some research, but the pantheon of the unrevealed god is vast. There are thousands of iterations, many of which have no name, and there is no definitive catalogue. New cults and interpretations of the god-head frequently blossom on the low continent, and just as frequently wither away. It took time, but in making use of the resources on campus I was able to track down the masks Mark and I had claimed. Apparently they were within the top 500 or so most common iterations, embodied in many towns and villages during regular festival plays. My mask was Adec, ‘inwardly turned’, while Mark’s was Manor, ‘questioning gaze.’ More details were not forthcoming. The author of one book noted that translation was notoriously difficult, as the denotation of each iteration may change depending on the location.

Locating Adam’s mask was more challenging. At last I contacted a professor who specialized in the religion. She told me to visit her in her office, a ratty little closet on the 10th floor of the university library. 

She was younger than I expected, in her early thirties, with blue stains on the index fingers of both hands. After our brief introductions, she spent a few seconds examining my face.

“Why are you interested?” she asked.

“A friend traveled to the low continent,” I lied. “He showed me some pictures of a festival. Just wanted to know the name of the iteration.”

“The masks are fascinating,” she agreed. Bending down, she began to rummage through a plastic storage box next to her desk. She set a poorly bound book on the table in front of me. It looked self-published, with only the title, ‘Iteration Masks of the Low Continent’, typed on the front.

“This isn’t a complete list, but it’s the best I can do.”

Each page included a number of masks with their names and and a brief description of their significance. The quality of the printing was bad. All the images were in grayscale, with the grainy resolution of repeated photocopies. After flipping through the book awhile, I hit on a mask that might have been Adam’s. 

“I think it’s this one,” I said, pointing. The professor raised an eyebrow.

“Pardet, an ‘uncoupling of time’,” she read aloud. “Your friend was very lucky to see this. I never have. There was a Pardet mask in the capital museum’s collection, but that was way before my time.”

“What happened to it?”

“Reported stolen years ago. That type of thing does happen I’m afraid.”

There didn’t seem to be anything further to say, so I thanked the professor and left. With nothing else to do, I went home. Over time, the hollow feeling in my stomach began to fade. I focused on my classes. Sometimes I saw Mark. We talked, but without much enthusiasm. We were like actors playing the roles of ourselves, and I think we were both relieved when the other one made an excuse to go. Eventually we stopped getting together. Around a year later I heard Adam had been arrested on some vaguely drug-related offense. Mark is the manager of a bike store now. I haven’t spoken to either of them in years.

*

Chad Inglis is a Toronto based writer of speculative and pre-apocalyptic fiction. He has spent the better part of the past decade wandering the globe collecting XPs. 'Masks' is his first published work.

6 comments:

  1. curious piece! gets rather odd. the first line seemed like a typo - ?

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  3. Great short story - tight, intriguing, unsettling. I really enjoy the combination of the austere, straightforward prose and subject matter that is psychedelic, fantastical, a bit nightmarish.

    I'm really impressed at how it provides cracked glimpses into mysteries and worlds much vaster than the tight confines of the events described. What is the orange powder they drink? What is it supposed to do? And what is the unrevealed god? And the low continent? What is this reality, which in so many ways evokes the shabby, prosaic surrounds of a typical North American university campus, but then twists into something darker and more alien?

    Like I said, intriguing. Hard to believe that such a well-crafted piece is a "first published work"! I would love to read more from this author.

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  4. Really really liked it. I felt like i was in the room with them at the beginning. Great mysterious short story!

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