Once upon a time there was a large, beautiful castle made of silver and diamonds, and it stood on the very edge of a cliff that overlooked the wide, blue-green sea. And in the morning Dawn poked her rosy fingers in its many windows along with glimmers of pearls, the golden Sun striding out to greet the tall spires first, their tips glinting in the light. And in the evening the sky faded to the palest blue just so that the streaks of lavender and crimson surrounded the silver clouds like picture-frames; at dusk the sky was dark, the dusty color of black velvet, the stars twinkling like a million tiny glass beads sprinkled among the fabric, twinkling in the sky that stretched out above and faintly in the sheet of dark glass that lay below.
And the two bright eyes that watched from the window saw all this and more. And a cherry-pink mouth curved up in pure joy at the perfection, and curls as pale as sun-bleached wheat bounced as she turned away.
The castle had been there from the beginning of time, and as for the girl, well, she had been born in it, with everything she could possibly need or want. Invisible servants rushed to prepare the hot customary breakfasts and the luncheons in the glass room, supper in the dining room with the marvelous chandelier. They bathed her in warm bubble baths scented with oranges and played hide-and-seek with her sometimes, which didn’t always work out. Most importantly they tucked her into bed, her huge bed with the fluffy covers and the puffy cloud-pillows. There’s nothing quite like being carried by an invisible servant.
The girl lives in complete contentment in the castle for the first seven years of her childhood, playing and laughing. Without a care in the world she dances and sings before invisible eyes. For there is only the castle, and the sun, and the sky, and the sea.
The girl lives in all innocence and naïveté for the first seven years of her life.
And then, on the morning of her eighth birthday, she hears a sound.
It sounds before the curiosity overtakes her and she begins to yearn for what lies outside its walls. She has often heard the shouts and laughter-maybe of people her own age! Often she peers out at the pale blue sky and can almost see the laughter rising up like smoke in the wind.
Once she voices her request, the invisible servants bundle her up in her thick winter jacket and hood. They won’t hinder her, she knows. But they do seem a bit apprehensive as the great doors slowly creak open and the small figure goes skipping out in scarlet wool. The hill is all frozen pale green, the chilled air biting her nose.
The invisible servants watch the girl silently from the many windows, like a drop of blood on a background of snow.
Soon enough, she spies them. Ah, they are just her age! Wisps stick out from under their hats, some dark and some fair, like hers. Laughing, she runs towards the group. They turn.
She stops in confusion. They all have strange masks on their faces, masks that cover their cheeks so that she can only see the eyes. Those cold, cold eyes, colder even than Winter’s frost!
They stare at her with a strange hostility that she has never known before now. The smiles that have just moments before been as wide as the sun’s now are inverted, the scowls growing fiercer by the second. Alien, they seem to say. Alien. Alien.
She runs sobbing back to the castle and tears up to her rooms, taking refuge in her huge comfy bed. Her tiny shoulders shake and muffled cries echo through the halls. The invisible servants wait downstairs, listening but not daring to make a sound.
Slowly they quiet to sniffles and whimpers. The small fists clutch the covers, the curls quite damp and sodden. Pale, bare feet pad to the dressing mirror. Standing on tiptoe, the girl peers at her reflection.
And a fearful, shaking, red-eyed girl peers back.
With a final wail, she tears through all the rooms until she finds the forbidden one, the one that can only be opened by a slender golden key that hangs from a slender golden chain around her throat. And she slides the key into the lock. And with a faint click the door swings open.
For this room is the magic room, the room that has been here even before the castle was built, and her mother had used it, and her mother’s mother. And it went back even before that.
But it is a room only to be used in the most dire circumstances, her mother says. Because, darling, it is….not…..natural. It is an easy way out.
She thinks about this before she peers in the room. But to her seven-year old mind, this seems like a dire circumstance, and this we cannot hold against her.
A swirl of color rises to meet her eyes, and she stumbles back in shock. Masks of every size and shape line the walls, half-masks and full-masks and everything in between. There are old cloth masks of dark velvet edged with pearls and mysterious black-and-white harlequins. There are haunting blue-gray masks with silver swirls like the sea outside the window and gold masks with red feathers like the robin that perches on the sill sometimes. There are butterfly masks with glistening, iridescent wings.
Her eyes widen with an awe that is almost fear as she steps into the forbidden chamber. Her fingers brush the glitter, the feathers, the satin. Her small feet step slowly and carefully. The room seems endless.
She gently moves aside the masks at the far end of the room, placing them in a pile. Her fingers trace the words cut in the wall, where there are no nails hammered in to hang the masks on.
For this is the mask you will wear at all times and be judged by. It is your wealth and your beauty, and you are nothing else.
And she has already chosen. She picks one up, a beautiful creation, a web of black lace and silver netting. Her hands shake as she slips it on.
I will be more beautiful than them, she thinks. I will be beautiful and alluring, and they will love me.
She steps out into the cold gray sky.
Sure enough, the little girl grew up into a beautiful young maiden, and from a beautiful young maiden into a stately woman that bore her years well, or so everyone thought. She danced through Life’s masquerade with ease and grace with that lovely mask. No one knew where she had gotten it, really, but all the young women of the time were overcome with jealousy.
Her wealth multiplied because of this magical mask, and the not-so-little girl was able to buy a much grander palace than the little shack on the edge of the cliff. She dined with the richest of fellows and hired actual servants to serve them. Her previous bed could not match the one she had now.
She lived these years in luxurious splendor, until she was old and wrinkled. Often she would look down at her hands, blue veined and shaking. But no one cared, because of one thing.
And curiously, it was the one thing she hated.
In her last week, when she was truly ancient and bent over, the once-girl manages to hobble down the long, winding road to the little palace-that-was on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. And she manages to get the door open and squeeze inside.
It is very dusty and cobwebby, and not at all made of diamonds.
At once she feels an itching, as if the skin of her face is flaking off. The mask. The mask! Her hands claw at her throat, behind her ears. Where is the ribbon? Where-
There is no ribbon.
And she looks around, opening doors and such, and finds the mirror. She peers at her reflection, just as she peered so many years ago.
And the hollow darkness behind the mask frightens her.
She looks down at her hands once more. They touch her nose, her cheeks. Where the mask has become her skin. Where it has become her.
They find her sprawled on the ground, her bony fingers fanned over her face, as if to shield them from view of the mask. The terrible product of pain and suffering.
Their cool hands lift the feather-light body and carry it to the bed shoved in the corner. The sheets are no longer white and springs have begun showing themselves in various places, but they set her down with all the gentleness of a mother to an infant. They fold her hands over her chest, as if she is only asleep.
The slender fingers reach out to touch the mask but then jerk back as if burned. The wind sighs, although no window is open. Once again they reach out and dance around its border, pulling, peeling, stroking. The black lace flakes away at their touch.
And so the girl sleeps for eternity in the diamond castle of her childhood, her hands clasping across her chest. And for the first time, the black lace leaves her mouth free to smile.