Masquerade


Arts High School Audition Piece

(ending rewritten, 31 Dec. 2006)


Imagine all of the energy in the world. Every life, every breath, every electrical current that pulses through the network of civilization, through the human mind, through the very earth itself, veins stemming from an unidentifiable ever-beating heart. Every flap of a bird's wings, every howl from a wolf's muzzle, every chirp and squawk and roar and hiss and every voice, every word spoken, every laugh. Count every heartbeat and imagine them the cadencing of millions of drums. Count every breath and imagine them the sighs of whispery flutes. Count every kiss exchanged between people and imagine them the gentle caress of a bow over violin strings, spinning bittersweet notes into the night. Bathe in the opalescent lambency of the full moon, and imagine it sewed into silken cloths, draped around willowy bodies, billowing in the evening wind. Picture the light of the setting sun, that liquid fire spilled across the horizon, and imagine it twined into a giant plume of flame, roaring high and devouring fragranced wood, spitting embers at the stars.

Listen, listen to the rhythmic footsteps of many bare feet. Imagine the owners of those feet, and imagine their shadows, dark doppelgängers stretching across the grass, following, stalking, silent and secretive, born from the light of the roaring fire. Darkness is always born from light. Imagine the chanting of many voices, not lilting jabberwocky but rather a mellifluous melody of beautifully strung together syllables, some forgotten foreign tongue lost on the common person. The words sound delicate but the emotion behind them is strong and intense and passionate. At first glance, this may seem like a festive shamble, a jubilee of sensuous disorder and pandemonium. But upon closer inspection, it's obvious that this celebration has a complex infrastructure. Everything has a purpose, everything has a meaning, everyone has a role.

And coming upon this sight is something words cannot sufficiently describe. Take all of that energy, all of the energy in the world, and condense it onto a single hilltop, a solitary swell of green grass and earth in the middle of a vast sweeping plain. Condense it and squeeze it beneath a glass dome and use that dome to cap the hilltop. The glass can't hold for long, and suddenly it shatters, and all of that energy (all of the energy in the world) explodes. Life and color and sound and smell—it all spirals towards the sky and rains back down, only to undulate again like a churning ocean wave. It's overwhelming and intoxicating, and once that trek to the top of the hill is made, once the boundary of this magickal world within the natural world is breached, it can't be let go.

There are people, robed in sheer colorful material that shimmers in the light, dancing around the fire. The bells on their ankles jingle and jangle in time to the tempo of the drums, shivering beneath the melody of the flutes and violins and other musical instruments congregated on the hilltop. Out of every tune choking the air, every musical voice whether it be the bells or the violins or what have you, the one that rises above them all is the voice of the people. It can't be called "the voices of the people" because it's one sound, it's one voice. It may be coming from multiple mouths, but surely, surely, it's one sound. And it's beautiful and exotic and seductive, a haunted broken melody.

Everyone is wearing a mask. Some are elaborate and bejeweled, covering the entire face of the wearer. Some are simple, covering only half of the face of the wearer. But regardless, everyone is wearing a mask. Some have feathers, some have precious stones, almost all are rimmed with a glimmering gold or silver metal, some have beads. Some resemble the faces of wild beasts, and some resemble the faces of even wilder beasts. Demons. Creatures of the night, prowlers of the dark realm. Everyone has their hair loose, and the hair colors range from cherry-red to violet, covering the entire spectrum, including the uniform blonde, brown, orange, and black. Their skin is smooth and pale, almost seeming more like porcelain than flesh and blood. The fingers on the hands that grip staffs and wands and ritual knives are long and artistic, the nails painted black and beautifully manicured. Around the slender necks of some hang heavy amulets and beads, and they bounce with the dancers' movements.

And I stand on the edge of it all, an outsider, an interloper, a stranger. I can't understand what manner of being brought me here, and I can't even begin to understand why I'm here. But I'm too entranced to even think about turning tail. My hands are safely in my jeans' pockets; I'm afraid that if I don't keep track of them they'll reach, reach for one of these otherworldly creatures and try to capture just a little of this inexplicable revelry and the emotion invested in it. I lean against one of the few trees that grow on the periphery of the hilltop, grateful for its stability. I feel like my legs could give out at any moment. There seems to be a rope on my heart, and the people that pass by me during this ritualistic fête each take turns tugging on it. Some of them meet my eyes, and in that moment I become inhuman, I become connected to them. I feel a preternatural pull, staring into their piercing gazes. Their eyes range in color, too, like their hair. I can see those ones that wear half-masks do something strange with their lips when they look at me. I would call it a smile, but it's much too seductive. I would call it a smirk, but it's far more sinister.

And then someone leaves the ring of dancers, turning away from the firelight and immersing their face in shadow. When they come alongside me, the fire sheds its light again on their features, and I can see a sensuous mouth and unblemished white skin. Their mask stretches over the bridge of their nose and wraps around their eyes, black feathers fanning over and away from their cheekbones and silver edging the almond-shaped eyeholes. Small jewels glitter against the ebony plumes, red jewels and silver jewels, accentuating their gray-rimmed scarlet eyes. Their hair is dark, I'd say black, but I can't be sure, curving around their jaw and neck, bangs sweeping across their forehead. They smile at me, and the wind rushes around us, billowing their red tunic and loose pantaloons. I'm enchanted, and can't tear my gaze away. I wonder if they consider it rude to stare.

This person, decidedly male, reaches into the folds of his clothes and procures a wilted red rose. He hands it to me, and says, "I like your mask." His voice is accented, silken and languid, the syllables smoothed over and yet his articulation somehow plainly audible. He leans in before I can even register his movement, and I feel his lips, soft and satin and cold, against my cheek. It's only for a split-second, a fraction of a heartbeat, and then it's gone and he's gone and for some reason, I feel so alone.

I stare after him as he melds back into the festivities. Suddenly worried, I reach up and touch my face, confirming what I'd already known to be true, that I wasn't wearing a mask. I search for him in the midst of the jubilee, but he's gone. The music carries on, the bells still jingling, nimble bodies still moving, not showing any indication of stopping soon. The fire roars and burns and the ambrosial smell of the fragranced wood is beginning to make me dizzy. The flames lick the inky sky, still spitting embers at the stars, as if jealous. The moon is at its zenith, round and full.

The energy, it's still encompassing, still condensed onto this single hilltop. I manage to look away for a moment, gazing out across the grassy plain to the city beyond. Suburbia surrounds the metropolis, and everything out there looks so quiet. The rest of the world seems to be at a standstill, and these creatures suddenly have dominion over the night. Or maybe they've always had it. Maybe that lethargy that comes to people at night, maybe that mystery of the nighttime realm, that fantasy and romance and terror, maybe this is where it's born.

I look down at the wilted rose in my hand—my impromptu gift from that scarlet stranger—and, to my surprise, find it perfectly alive and well, as if freshly picked. The petals are lusciously red and the stem is healthy and strong, the leaves proud and sprouting between the blunted thorns.

Maybe I'd only imagined that it was dead.

Returning my eyes to the celebration, I decide that that certainly couldn't have been the case. I couldn't have imagined it because my imagination doesn't exist here... here, where reality is more incredible than anything my imagination has the capacity to invent. Here, where everything is so beyond the mortal kingdom while still being within its boundaries... Here, where humanity's wildest dreams are breathing and thriving and very, very real. And these creatures... they're the ones who make it all happen. These creatures, who quietly draw mankind down off of its throne, take sovereignty out of our hands and hold it in the palms of their stronger, surer hands, hands with white slender fingers and black-painted nails.

And while their fire roars and their music plays we slip into sleep, utterly helpless and completely unable to do anything but dream about it all.