I step gingerly from the carriage into the chilly air. An owl hoots from a nearby tree then takes flight making the iced branches gently clink together. A twinkling of crystal chimes. The snow along the cobbled path glistens in the ...
I step gingerly from the carriage into the chilly air. An owl hoots from a nearby tree then takes flight making the iced branches gently clink together. A twinkling of crystal chimes. The snow along the cobbled path glistens in the moonlight. A brisk breeze carries me to a door. I knock three times. A panel a foot above my head slides open. A pair of eyes peers down at me then vanishes as the panel swiftly shuts. I hear the click of a lock being disengaged. The door swings open.
“Welcome Mr. Colins.” The giant in front of me bows and ushers me in.
“Thank you Lyle.”
“Allow me to take your coat.” Lyle’s voice booms softly, like distant thunder.
“Thank you.” I hand him my coat.
“The party is just through the doors at the end of the hall. I don’t believe they have started yet.” Lyle speaks slowly, taking his time on each word.
I wander down the hall traveling under a pair of chandeliers and along a row of portraits on either wall. I recognize none of the painted faces and don’t care to take the time to read the names engraved under each one. The carpet feels spongy under my feet. It’s red and gold pattern depicts a very long snake winding its body around a tall, thin tree that bears some kind of fruit.
I arrive at the door and pause to take my mask from my pocket and put it on. The mask I have chosen for this evening is black with a pattern of silver that swirls around my cheeks and forehead. The colors match my black tux and cape, that if flourished give off a silvery shine.
From behind the door I can hear the sound of muffled conversation. Lyle was right, the party hasn’t started yet. I take several deep breaths to quell my rapidly beating heart. I can already feel perspiration beading along my brow congealing under my mask.
“I’m only here to observe tonight.” I whisper to myself. “If I don’t want to take part, I don’t have to.”
I shove the doors open and enter a vast ballroom. Tables draped in white cloth and laden with glasses of drink, bowls of fruit and sweets of all kinds run the length of three of the walls. The fourth wall is occupied by a short stage. People stand in groups next to the tables conversing, laughing and clinking glasses. Everyone’s face is hidden behind all manner of masks. Most are elegant, like mine, with dazzling patterns or glitter. Others are simple and hid only the eyes. I notice a few have even been painted on. These are the most unusual. One woman has painted black circles around her eyes and red streaks down her cheeks making it appear as though she were crying blood. A man has colored half his face a yellowish orange and the other half a dark purple with dots of white. I move to a less crowded wall and pick up a drink. I sip slowly not wanting whatever the drink is spiked with to have too much effect on me. I watch the room silently. People began to let their eyes wander as they search for a partner. The dance is soon. I glance at the stage. No band yet, but the instruments are set up. I begin to feel light headed. My body loosens and grows relaxed. I feel my anxiousness and excitement melt away and replaced with a blunt sense of joy. I smile as thoughts slip from my mind. A woman walks up to me wearing a sparkling white dress and a white mask made of feathers, and asks if I wanted to dance. I shake my head. The woman shrugs and smiles.
“That’s okay. If you decide later you want to, come and find me.” She walks away.
As people find a partner they begin filling in the space in front of the empty stage. Though I notice a few people standing off to the side like me, either to watch or because no one wants to dance with them. A hush blankets the room as a man appears on the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome.” The man is wearing a crimson mask with a long beak like nose. “It looks as though we have a wonderful turnout tonight. I hope everyone has enjoyed themselves thus far. However, now it is time for the main event to begin.”
The man clasps his hands together and the lights in the ballroom quickly dim to total darkness. I am overcome by a brief moment of disorientation at the loss of my eyesight and the silence that clings to the room. I feel like I have suddenly been sucked into a black liquid that seeps into my ears and eyes clogging them with inky gel shutting me off in a space of total sensory deprivation. But, a few spotlights blink on and light the stage and I am graciously returned to reality.
The man has been replaced by a band all wearing identical black masks. A woman at the microphone clears her throat as the men and women in the crowd shuffle to get into position while giving each other space. Then the woman begins to sing. Her voice sparkles and flutters on the air. The sound of sunlight reflecting off a glass lake. A sudden image of an angel flying close to the sun settles in my mind and only too late do I realize that the angel has soared straight into the yellow orb burning up in a quick flash of light. I then become aware of an underlying sense of dread in the woman’s tone, though she only sings one line, repeating it over and over. “La la la. La la la.” They aren’t even words, but it sounds beautifully malicious. Softly the band begins to accompany the woman’s voice. Deep and dark, the tempo of the music steadily grows faster. I watch the dancers swing and whirl themselves into a frenzy to match the music. The woman’s voice rises to nearly a scream, the band continues to quicken the song’s pace and everyone dances more rapidly. Sweat starts to appear on the back of necks. Droplets of diamond light slides over exposed skin, which suddenly begins to flicker in and out of view. Gleaming bone flashes as the skin of the dancers dissolves. The music continues to play and the dancers, now nothing more than skeletons wearing masks, gowns and tuxedos, keep up their fast paced jittering. Then band disappears entirely. Their clothes and instruments hang in the air, draped over invisible forms. The song climaxes in an explosion of sound, then instantly cutting off along with the lights, leaving me wondering if I have gone deaf and blind again. My mind begins to panic. I am now in a dark room with dozens of skeletons. I need to escape before they come for me, for my flesh, now that they have none. My frenzied mind begins to conjure scenes of skeletons in fancy clothes standing over my corpse ripping flesh off my bones in long stripes and then pasting the meat onto their own frames. I frantically grope for the wall behind me but my hands only catch wisps of air. Now my whole body is in a panic. My muscles spasm as they too realize that I am trapped in this thick blackness with flesh hungry skeletons and there is no escape. My legs begin to shake and are about to buckle when the lights around the ballroom rise from nothing to a dull glow. I rapidly scan the room. No one is coming at me. The band has vanished, clothes, bodies and instruments all gone. The people have ceased dancing and stand in a group in front of the stage. No longer skeletons, their skin appears smooth and supple and they all wear childish grins like they have been caught with their hand in a cookie jar.
Steadily the noise of conversation grows and people make their way to the refreshment tables. Casually, though my muscles are now stiff from the strain of panic, I exit the ballroom. I quickly traverse the carpeted floor of the hallway. Lyle waits by the door already holding my coat and helps me into it. I mumble my thanks as Lyle opens the door for me.
“Hope to see you again soon.” Lyle booms from behind me before shutting the door.
The morning sun has risen making the snow sparkle like diamond dust. A couple of birds chirp good morning to each other above my head. I stride down the path feeling like I have just witnessed something so wonderful that it scares me. My mind rushes with the excitement of the possibilities someone would gain by participating in such a dance.
“They have have regressed in age by at least a decade, but at what cost?” I wonder.
This was the third time I had witnessed this rejuvenating and invigorating event. I still hadn’t found the courage, or desperation, to join. Thoughts and questions without immediate answers spin in my mind as I step into my carriage. I take one quick look back at the house. It is a house that appears the same as all the other wealthy homes in the neighborhood. Yet, inside it holds a magnificent darkness.