Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Summer Mask

I met you in the summer when the butterflies began to dance.

You were missing your nose, your right eye, and the top of your lips. Some of your teeth. It made conversation a sort of whistle.

The war had taken half of your face. It had burned your skull into spotted pink and black, like the underbelly of some amphibious creature.

Before the war you were classically beautiful, with classic emerald eyes and a classic strong jaw and classic full lips, but none of these descriptions do you justice. I want to say you were perfect, but it was the imperfections that made you so. Maybe your profile wasn’t classically sharp enough. Maybe your smile was a little bit crooked. But who needs perfect symmetry when there is personality? You were perfect enough, so perfectly enough that you brought the beauty with you into rooms and elevated them. You are still a classic beauty.

When I say classic now, I mean the classical sculpture with the nose lobbed off, and the sheared ears, and the missing hands.

When I say classic, I mean the marble you can’t touch in museums.

When I say classic, I mean the alabaster hardness of your sorrow.

• • • •

I first saw you with your open face turned up to the sun, the edges of your skull exposed, the emptiness where an eye should have been. The mottled black space stared right at the sun in defiance or entreaty. Your other eye was the color and opacity of smoke trapped in a glass.

God looked back at you but you couldn’t see Him.

It was the only reason you didn’t burn up. Because you had no seeing eye and all the glory was in the heat. The eye that remained relatively intact saw merely shadows. Maybe that’s the only way we can ever see God.

It was the first time you’d felt the sun on your skin, since before.

It was the first time nobody gasped in horror. The nurses, the doctors, the brick manor and the grand fields where lords and their vassals and their hounds used to hunt. All welcomed you and others like you, maskless in the summer. We were there to make you feel at home.

And me, an artist with an artist’s eye. Hunting you.

Something about how you stood apart even from your brethren. This platoon of damaged bodies wandering the lawn like the undead, glorying in the simple touch of a summer’s breeze. Exclaiming to one another or, like you, moving away from contact as though this shared experience could infect you. You sat by yourself with both hands on the rich green grass, as if it were the only thing holding you to the Earth. I saw your fingers curl into fists and begin to rip it up. You tore the grass from the earth and I wanted to be near you. There was no logic to it but that didn’t matter, it was something about the way you destroyed your surroundings, the way your shoulders looked carved out of the day.

They made this place for you. Like I make this mask for you. And other artists make their masks for the other ones who can look in God’s eye and not burn.

The ones God had blinded.

But the others aren’t quite like you.

I fell in love with your blindness because you couldn’t see me. I fell in love with you.

• • • •

Ugly things need to be needed. They need to have a function to be worthy of their existence. We must justify the spider, not the swan. Beauty can stand on its own.

Beauty is its own kind of magic, you know.

Nobody ever looked at me, but you looked because you couldn’t see the bluntness of my features. If God had chiseled man with the precision of focus, He had yawned when he fashioned me. A face that never caught the eyes, never warranted anyone to look twice. Mine was not a face that could ever manipulate, much less lift a room.

So I used my hands.

• • • •

“My name is Matthew,” he said.

We were indoors; the room used to be someone’s study. Remnants of bookcases now held carving instruments: blades of different shapes and sizes. Wire. Hammers. A brown globe, its surface like varnished parchment, sat on a corner table. Sometimes I spun it just to hear its joints creak. Through the leaded glass, out in the sun and over Matthew’s shoulder, other veterans like him walked around the field. Some played lawn bowling. Others simply lay on their backs on the grass. A few wandered near the garden. They reached to touch the colorful pathways of flowers and turned their faces to the warmth in exultation.

I said, “I’m David. I’m going to remove your mask now, all right?”

“All right,” Matthew said, oblivious to what activity he could not see. Maybe he heard them, faintly, like echoes.

His mask was crude, a stitched leather hood like an executioner’s, with eyeholes rimmed by tin. Clearly not created for him specifically, for what need had he for eyeholes when he was blind? The metal rings gave the appearance of a machine man locked inside a scarecrow.

“There we are.” I gently set the hood on the crafting table beside us.

Matthew blinked his one intact eye, the milky round of it glistening as though some vision moved him. He must have felt me staring. “I know it’s hideous,” he murmured.

“Not at all.”

“Don’t lie.” There was an edge to his voice. Like a remnant of the war. Or maybe this kind of sharpness only came after all the battles. “I may not be able to see, but I can sense very well.”

“I’m not lying. I am your mask maker. I’m seeing your face as it once was and as it will be again.”

His partial mouth curled, but it wasn’t mirth. “If you’re that good, you must be a magician.”

He could not see me smile, so I did. “Did you bring your pictures?”

His gaze moved as if he were searching for something, but it was his hands that did the looking. Remnants of white dust coated the lines of his fingers, as though he’d been playing in beach pebbles. An old man’s hands, even if he was barely twenty-one. He dipped into the chest pocket of his simple work shirt and withdrew five photographs, all of them burnt a little at the edges. He held them out and I took them. On their sepia surfaces, the man he once was, all of that dark beauty and eyes whose color could still be discerned even in a two tone image. A couple of the photographs faced forward. Two others were profiles. And the last, a three-quarter angle. They were the sorts of portraits one took to hang in a home, framed by gilt. Pictures that would be looked upon by descendants, with static backgrounds and a posed formality.

He didn’t say anything and neither did I. He must have known I inspected each one.

Eventually he said, “So what do you think?” The sharpness carved every word, made the soft whistle sound of his speech lilt upward. Like a challenge.

“You remind me of a film star.” It was fatuous, too facile a comparison, but I did not care.

“Too bad,” he said, with enunciation.

“It will take time,” I told him. “But you will see . . . you will see.”

He thought it a turn of phrase. He reached for his blind man’s cane where it hooked to the arm of his chair, and pushed himself to his feet. He was already turning away, as if to spare me the sight of him. Or perhaps to spare himself. “I’ve got all the time in the world, David.”

• • • •

In the two months of our summer, I carved the brown clay. From a slab I made angles, and from the angles the vague suggestion of features. I didn’t work solely from the photographs. Often I went out to the gardens where he sat and looked at his ravaged profile, no longer something you would see in moving pictures unless it was a horror show. He could be that emaciated vampire now, that ghoul risen from the crypt. But when I looked at him, I saw him whole. My vision reordered itself and wove a glamor. Then I blinked and it dissipated, pulled apart by sunlight.

“How’s it going?” he asked, and meant specifically the mask making.

I rubbed at the brown residue on the palm of my hand. “Slowly. I am a perfectionist.”

“Don’t be.” He turned to me, a lopsided regard. The stare of a cyclops. “Anything would be an improvement on this.” He didn’t speak for pity, but as a matter of fact.

“Would you like to walk in the garden? The flowers smell like Eden.”

So we went. He held my arm and tapped his cane in steady rhythm on the flagstones. I wanted to touch his fingers where they curled at my sleeve. We meandered with battalions of flowers at our flanks, such a parade of beauty that the scent of them almost seemed to color the air in rainbows. Without his nose, could he truly smell them? But I didn’t ask.

He stopped walking. “What kinds are they?”

“Hydrangeas, marigolds, azaleas . . . roses. If you squint they look like a Seurat painting.”

His grip tightened and he turned as if he could see them. The willows nearby blocked the angle of the sun just enough that I didn’t have to blink. His one eye remained round and wide.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I see variation in shadow and light. Like . . . like fish swimming beneath a pond.”

“But no color?”

He shook his head.

“But you remember color.”

“Yes, of course.”

“The imagination,” I said, “can feel as real as reality. Think of all the things you could never see, even when you had sight, but you knew them to be true.”

“What do you mean?” His breathing was becoming labored, so I guided him toward an iron bench along the path, where we sat.

I turned to his damaged face. “Like emotions. Like love.”

I could not tell from the movement of what remained of his mouth if the expression was derision or skepticism, or simply an acknowledgment of understanding.

“We live in a scientific age.” I looked at his hands, how they had returned to himself, holding the cane across his lap. “But there is yet so much that science cannot see.”

“It’s not the same, David. Love and the color of flowers.”

“Maybe we blind ourselves,” I said. “Maybe they are exactly the same.”

• • • •

If his other senses were honed, like he claimed, could he feel what I was feeling when I looked at him? Not disgust or hesitation, not pity or clinical assessment. Even if he didn’t believe that I could see the parts of him that were no longer there, could he still discern my longing?

I was never likeminded. Head in the clouds, my parents said. I became mesmerized by the spots on the backs of ladybugs. I spent whole afternoons as a child trying to find four leaf clovers in wild fields. I gazed at clouds. Maybe all children did these things, accompanied by questions like how was it possible that I only saw out of my own eyes? Why was I always inside my own body? Would the Sun ever die? Until those questions became almost incidental considerations when my sight, all of my staring, began to form a second layer.

What I could see, what I could fashion . . . what I could imagine into being. That became my reality.

His features made of clay had to be perfect. First I was going to mold them with my hands. Then came everything after.

• • • •

By the end of the summer I conjured the courage to ask him how it had happened. His face. Maybe this was like asking a convict why he was imprisoned and the answer would be a lie or at least some polished version of the truth. But for some reason I knew he would not lie to me. We had spent the weeks nearly exclusively in each other’s company. He didn’t talk much to the other artists, nurses, or veterans. He isolated himself in more than just his blindness. But for me, his mask maker, he walked along the flower paths. He sat beneath willows and napped by the maples, a black scarf across his eyes like a bandit. He asked me to read him books, especially when I told him I could pronounce Chaucer in the Old English manner.

It was a warm night without being oppressive. The manor house was lit inside, just enough to throw out a glow to meet what the moon made on the Earth. Darkness started at the garden, though, and shrouded even the trees. It was peaceful as we sat on the veranda. Someone played the old harpsichord in the drawing room behind us, a trickle of music.

“I don’t remember many details,” Matthew said. “The doctors told me that is probably a blessing.” He made a sound like a bird rustling beneath newspaper; it was his laughter. “If that word could be applied to my condition at all. Wouldn’t you rather be dead?”

No, I thought. But it was a selfish answer. I would not want him to be dead either.

“The last thing I recall is walking through a field. We had just left a village. There was a treeline. It was such a quiet day, like a day here. The sky was so blue, and there was some kind of hawk circling above us. I remember looking up at it and wishing I could be that hawk. Then they opened fire on us and there must have been some sort of explosion . . .” He gestured to his face but he wasn’t facing me. He looked instead toward the dark. “After that, I woke up in the hospital with my whole head wrapped up like King Tut. A miracle, they kept saying. A miracle. Because they were too afraid to say it was a curse.”

I knew he had never said these words to anyone else. I thought of what it must have been like in the city, where he had to walk the streets with a crude mask on. Where people stared regardless, children pointed. Where, maybe, he didn’t even go out except at night. I didn’t work up the nerve to ask him those details yet. But I knew that here, in this place, it was the first time the sunlight and the breeze touched what was left of his face.

“I am not even the same inside,” he continued. “My family says, oh Matthew, you’re the same person no matter what is on the outside. But I’m not. How can I be?”

“You are not the same person, but that’s not wrong.” Here I flailed to say something of meaning, something he would hear. But he wasn’t listening to my voice.

“I can hear what people think now. It’s quite a gift.” He laughed again, that paper rustling sound. “I am a creature in the world.”

“This world is just as much yours. It will be again.” He didn’t say anything to that. Affirmations had a way of always sounding like lies. “Where will you go when you leave here?” Stay here, I wanted to say. Even if it wouldn’t be possible. This was not a permanent boarding house.

“I live with my aunt. Maybe . . . maybe you can visit?”

I was surprised. Maybe he had been listening after all.

But the winter was when I had to do the most difficult part of the work. Still, I could not say no to him.

“I would love that.”

• • • •

On the last day of our summer he asked to see me. We were in my work room. His unfinished mask of clay sat on the table. It resembled him, but like a distant relative, not a twin. “I’m sorry I couldn’t finish it for you, but it will be ready for next summer.”

He held the executioner’s hood in his hands, sitting across from me. “You know what I look like. I want to know what you look like.”

So I let him. He used his hands, rough fingers that pressed the edges of my face, found every dry riverbed that creased my skin beyond its years. I had spent long hours in the sun in my youth. He mapped my narrow jaw, the bare growth of stubble, the ax of my nose. The sloping forehead and thick wiry hair. All the while I stared into the black emptiness of his eye and saw his future visage. The remade mouth that would smile without pain. The full arch of his dark brows. Reflected light in jade jewel irises.

“What color is your hair?” he asked.

“Like mouse fur.”

He pinched the ends of the locks, then withdrew. Like ritual, he slipped the executioner’s hood over his head and pushed himself to his feet, cane in hand. Like so, he was emotionless. Faceless. Anonymous.

Except I saw it in his walk out the door. The cadence of his step and the cane sounded like sadness.

• • • •

In the winter is when you become whole, my golem, the way you imagine yourself to be, the way I know you still wish you were. In the winter I sweep my hands over your clay cheekbones to make them sharper, I carve above your eyes to create eyelids, I readjust your hairline when it reaches too high. Your brows arch easily into a strong forehead. Each crease is a memory, a worry, or the result of a past sun. You must be perfect, and I dig for it like a dog. I find you beneath my fingernails, and no matter how much I peel and scrub, there are parts of you still there, embedded in my fingerprints, staining my cuticles, setting the love and life lines on my palms into relief. You have become a part of my future.

Through the dark months I see your face looking back up at me, smoothed by water and hours and my hands. It is a photograph come alive, but in sleep. Eyes are not open yet, lips do not speak. It is still a death mask.

In my attic room I read your letters, your musings of what you hear from the windows—the dramas of sidewalk life and street traffic; the stray dogs and serpentine strides of men and women about their business, light and wind on their faces (you imagine it)—masks of a different kind. So many thoughts and intentions and worries barricaded behind eyes you cannot see. In your letters there is the absence of admitting you don’t like to go out, most days you can’t shoulder the scrutiny unless it is so cold you can wrap yourself in wool like everybody else, and become hidden in falling snow. I collect the invitations to come visit you at your aunt’s, but I wait until the last minute.

The last minute when there is nothing more left to do with your mask but the final act for the summer and the trees have begun to awaken from their winter slumber.

The last minute where I can look on you with clear eyes, before the blindness takes me.

• • • •

His aunt’s study was unlike the one at the manor. Here, dusty books piled one upon the other in cascades of leather and paper. The walls were faded red velvet with ivory wainscoting, the drapery full of gray lace and curlicue patterns. The room looked a little like an aged wedding cake. Here, Matthew wore his executioner’s hood because he said his aunt was afraid to see his full face in dim hallways.

“What does it look like outside? I put my hand to the glass and it’s still a little cold.”

It was night. The trees turned into arthritic silhouettes and icy breezes tossed day old newspapers and pamphlets down the street. It was the season of ghosts. But I told him, “It is weather for deep breathing and mittens. You can smell the chimney smoke still.”

“Yes,” he said, with the eagerness of agreement. Scents, of course, were always present.

“I came to tell you I have finished your mask. But I will give it to you at the summer house.”

He straightened his shoulders. He wore a black cable knit sweater that made his body thin. In the photographs he’d seemed broad and strong. “Why didn’t you bring it here? Why do you want to wait?”

“There is one last thing to do and it will take some time.”

“But you said it was finished.”

“Yes . . . it’s difficult to explain.”

He looked toward the tall windows, though the drapes were closed. As if he’d heard something outside the gate. “Were you working on other masks?”

“No. I . . . was supposed to. But yours is the only one I truly cared about.”

Was it easier to confess things to the blind? Perhaps. But a voice could be just as revealing as an expression in the eyes. From inside that executioner’s mask, he didn’t seem to move. One milky eye peered toward me, past me. His hands held his cane as if it were a lifeline on a raft and he was the last survivor of a catastrophic sinking.

“Are you very alone?” he said, though we sat just inches apart.

A question from one creature to another.

“I have been.”

It wasn’t sadness, but a strange melancholy that beset me when I left his home. He walked me to the door, as if I was some kind of gentleman caller.

“I will see you in the summer,” he said. These easy turns of phrases that had now become ironic and impossible.

Nearly, anyway. Nearly impossible.

“You will.”

• • • •

There is blood, of course. For something such as this, there can only be blood and the pain of blood. The Savior bled from every pore and birth is never gentle. Neither rebirth. The incantations of the heart can save or skewer. An eye for an eye.

My eyes for your eyes. The carving blade I set to clay, now to my own skin, my eyes, my face. To carve myself out of myself and to say the words, and taste the blood, that transmogrifies these parts to become yours.

To make them eternal, the Egyptians mummified their royal dead. This is the least I can do. What grander gesture of love and eternity and sacrifice? What better way to say it? Long ago I’d come to realize the absence of my own life. To move through the world unnoticed was more painful than the most lashing mockery. How to justify my own existence when from day to day there was neither joy nor anything as raw as sorrow? There is only a middle place that stretches on, and I can see no end and no beginning, no features on either side, no landmarks and no population; it is only this and I am in the middle of it, turning to all compass points but each way is equally gray. I wake up to count the hours when I can sleep again, seeking oblivion, but my dreams betray me. In them are phantasms of worry and loss, memory mixed with some future I know has happened already because in my dreams I am a child aware of my grown life and all that does not exist anymore. My town, my parents, their harsh judgment and protective love, and all of my resentments and regrets balled up like fists that I beat against each bizarre nightmare that stalks me into the waking world. I am screaming or I am crying, as if the only emotions that can swim to the surface of my living life are born from the dark places, these rooms in which I speak like speech is a covenant made only with devils. The devils linger in the mornings and at the foot of my bed, and I am finished with it.

I need to be done. I need to make meaning and before you there was none.

So now there is the blood and I cry into the bath of it made from the excavation of my own face, each word a scream, each sound a promise, and I touch my wet red hands to the clay mask to make it come alive.

• • • •

We are at the summer house. One of the nurses brings him into the old study, I hear her voice. I hear how she doesn’t linger in the room with us and the door shuts. It is late in the afternoon when the sun begins to slant away to shun the moon.

“David?”

“I’m here.” My vision is shadow and light, like fish dancing beneath a stream. “I have your mask, but you must sit very still and not say a word.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” There is the sound of leather set on the floor. His executioner’s hood, discarded.

“Don’t move and don’t say a word. You’ll know when it’s all right.”

“David?” Concern in his tone, because I repeat myself.

But I don’t answer. I see just enough of the outline of him. It manifests the way dreams do, where if I stare long enough I can remember when I awaken. I hold his mask in my hands but now edge forward in my seat. I begin to say the words and he doesn’t interrupt me, though the sound of the words must perturb or even frighten him. Words that bleed into themselves and begin to sound like nothing at all except discordant keening. There is a stone in my throat, as smooth as something resting in a riverbed, and my words are the tides that glide over it, giving it shape. Changing its shape.

This mask made of me now slips over his skin. He gasps. I speak louder. I touch his cheeks and feel them tighten. I run my fingers over the edges of him, feel muscle and bone, cartilage and tears. His tears. I imagine setting my mouth to them for their salt, I can even see it from within my own shadows, like peering through a keyhole. All the pain was given already, it is splattered and stained in my attic back in the city. The scent of it will never disappear. Maybe it’s still on my hands, beneath my fingernails, driven deep into the lines on my palms. Maybe my hands are red when they touch all over his new, perfect face.

He seizes my wrists. “David.”

I can’t see him. He says, “David.”

He doesn’t let go of me. He says, “David.”

He can see now. He can see me.

He wrenches himself away and runs from the room.

• • • •

I wake up only to stay in bed. Do you know what it’s like to sleep when you can’t close your eyes? When there are no eyes to shut? Sleep and wakefulness become the same thing, it is only a matter of dreams. And even then.

Of course you came back to me, when the shock wore off. All you kept saying was, “How do I explain? How do I explain?” as if the world had become closed to just that question when in fact it had opened out again. You could see, you were whole, you had your features back, that classical beauty before the ages took you, before any sort of war and walk in the field. You could look up again and see the hawk, the sky was just as blue as you remembered, even bluer, and nothing hurt when you smiled. And you smiled. You smiled like it was the first expression to ever cross your mind, you smiled like a baby does when it wants to understand the world, you smiled like you were in love. Maybe you were in love with yourself and the possibilities and despite what was left of my face you couldn’t stop yourself from smiling.

“I don’t understand,” but it didn’t matter because you held my hand in your confusion and you said that I was terrible for doing this to myself but I could hear it in your voice how easy it was to lie. Of course there was guilt but there was also gratitude and that was all that mattered. That and the way you held my hand and you held my mind in the palm of your hand, you were all I thought about and all I had been thinking about since last summer.

Now you read to me, now we took walks in the garden and I held your arm, I tapped a cane, I stared into shadows and the edges of flickering light, like a moving picture that had hit the end of its reel and if I looked very hard, I could rewind to some vision of reality where we are both whole and walking amongst the flowers and we both feel the perfect breeze on our perfect skin and you will let me taste the salt on your cheeks that isn’t from tears. This is my dream now.

So we spent the summer and of course I knew it had to end, you kept saying you didn’t know how you would ever explain and I said, “Don’t explain.” What I meant was, Don’t say the words. Don’t say you’re thankful, don’t say you’ll never forget, don’t say you’ll write because all I want to hear is Don’t go. But I’m not the one who’s going, after all. I am staying, I will find an attic that doesn’t carry the scent and texture of blood because there is no other place in the world for me, we know this. I hear it in the sound of your voice, I feel it in the grip of your hands and it’s true, my senses have not diminished, especially not the one that saw you that first afternoon in the first summer when you tore the grass from the earth.

You were tearing my heart out of my chest. You are tearing my heart out of my chest, and I give it to you like I gave you the other parts of me and refashioned them into something beautiful. What was dead has come alive.

You are this beautiful and it doesn’t need to be justified. It doesn’t need to be explained.

Beauty is its own kind of magic, you know.

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Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel Warchild won the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both Warchild (2002) and her third novel Cagebird (2005) were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. Cagebird won the Prix Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English and the Spectrum Award in 2006. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese, and her short stories have appeared in anthologies edited by Nalo Hopkinson, John Joseph Adams, Jonathan Strahan, and Ann VanderMeer.