She found the mask in a box in the attic while playing with her friend Sam. They had put together pieces of the past, photographs of her parents’ childhood and keepsakes from vanished uncles and aunts to make what they called all our other families.
It had started when Sam said that she would like it if they were sisters instead of just friends mostly because it was so far to bike whenever she wanted to visit. So they went through all those boxes of discarded memories and turned the forgotten relatives and the less celebrated moments from her own family into their secret shared families, complete with secret relationships, blood-feuds, illegitimate children and pets (she had insisted: there had to be pets – so the two of them had to dig for half an hour until there was a handful of potentially acceptable pet photographs to choose from).
In the middle of all this, while looking for a suitable lover for a handsome soldier uncle, she found the mask.
It was not pretty. Neither Sam nor she could say for certain what it was meant to be.
“It could be a fox,” Sam offered eventually, after she had turned it over in her hands. “Like one of those foxes from the Japanese tale.” Sam loved Japanese folklore but she had this annoying habit of referring to every single one of them as the Japanese tale as if there was only the one of them. “It’s ugly, though. I mean,” she corrected herself, “not really well made.”
“Yeah,” she was forced to agree. It wasn’t ugly, she thought. It really wasn’t well made but what she saw wasn’t ugliness but malevolence. Maybe Sam saw the same thing and just knew the word ugly for it.
If it was a fox, it was a very beastly fox. She didn’t find it ugly, she wanted to keep it.
She put it back on top of the cardboard box where she had found it and the two continued their game.
When it was time for Sam to bike back home she went with her, then pretended to have forgotten the key to the front door upstairs. The key was in her pocket but she ran back and snatched up the mask. She hid it under her sweater.
She unlocked the front door and waved Sam goodbye as she drove away down the forest road. For some reason she kept the mask hidden underneath her sweater, close to her skin, while she watched TV and played with her phone.
When it got dark her mom came back, kissed her and started making food.
The mask grew warm from her body heat and she imagined that it had started to grin down there.
Her mom made beans and tempeh that evening and they ate together.
“When is Dad coming back? I forgot it,” she said.
Her mom looked at her strangely for a moment. “Not until next week.”
When they were doing the dishes she became curious. She pulled out the mask when her mom wasn’t looking and put it on the table. It wasn’t grinning. It looked as evil as before.
“I found something in the attic today,” she said.
“A photograph?” her mom asked without turning around. “There’s lots of pictures of relatives you’ve never seen up there.”
Her mom turned around. Sometimes she could feel other people’s emotions. Sometimes she could feel them as strong as the weather outside. Her mom, she noticed, was suddenly scared and it felt like little fingers of ice.
She also noticed that her mum pretended not to be scared, which was odd.
“I…”, her mom began and for some reason she knew that she wanted to say I have never seen this and that it would have been a lie. Her mom paused and said: “Did you have to find this?” She sounded resigned now.
“I don’t know. What is it?”
“I made it. Did you put it on?”
She shrugged. “No.”
“Do you want to?” Something in her mom’s tone made her feel scared.
“I…I don’t know. I wanted to take it, though.”
Her mom sighed. “Don’t keep it close when you go to sleep. Don’t put it in your bedroom at all. Best lock it away somewhere or you’ll want to put it on.”
“What will happen if I put it on?”
Her mom looked at her and she didn’t know if she felt sad or scary. “Well, perhaps he will come to visit you, too. I made it because I wanted him to come visit me and my mother had broken her mask, which she had let me use.” She paused. “It was a mistake…I think.”
She wonder briefly what had been a mistake. “You mean you had…grandma had…?”
Her mom nodded and wiped the last of the dishes. The mask lay between them on the table.
“Why? What is it? Sam thought it was maybe a fox?”
“Sam? She saw it too? She shouldn’t come for a sleepover this week.”
“We weren’t thinking of doing one anyway. So, is it a fox?”
“Yes, dear, it is a fox.” She turned around and looked her daughter straight in the face. “Do you want to wear it or should I put it away?”
“I don’t know. Why do you sound like that?”
“Dear, it’s important. Do you want to wear it or should I put it away?”
“Well…” She picked up the mask wondering if it was still warm from her own warmth. It was. “I guess I’ll wear it, then.”
Her mother shifted for a moment as if she was carrying some invisible weight. “Go outside to play, will you?”
“But it’s dark outside.”
“It doesn’t matter…” Her mom smiled and looked very old and tired. “Go play outside.”
“I don’t really want to play alone, mom. I’m a bit too old for that.”
“You won’t be alone, dear. Look.” Her mom took a pair of scissors and a piece of string from a cupboard. “Lift it up to your face. Make sure you can see through the eye holes. It’s important.”
“Ouch…you’re making it really tight!”
“You might have to run. Don’t complain. If you’re going to wear it, you’re going to wear it right.” Her mom fixed the mask. She knelt down in front of her and fixed her hair, too. She was very slow and careful about it and she seemed to find more and more things that needed fixing. Her mom was always patient with her but now she felt real tenderness. She was almost done, then found some last things around her collar and sleeves that needed attention. Underneath the tenderness she could now feel her mom’s worry, coiled like a snake.
She whispered: “He can be kind or he can be mad. Either way you must be quick. Never ask how long it will take. It will take as long as it will take. Say it.”
“Say it. Please.”
“It will take as long as it takes. Can I go now?”
“Yes,” the whisper almost broke. “Go now…be back before you father comes home.”
“What?” she muttered to herself but was soon occupied with wearing a mask. She shook her head, jumped up and down. The mask sat tight. Through the eye holes she could see almost as well as she could without the mask. She could see the garden lit by two lights from the veranda. She could see the edge of the light where the woods began.
There was no fence or hedge where the garden ended and the woods began. Sometimes rabbits or deer came by, like lost travellers from another world. She sat down on the grass and stared into the darkness.
It got boring very quickly so she imagined that she was turning into a fox. Maybe that was the power of the mask? She figured the mask had some strange power or else why would her mom be scared of it? She wished Sam were here to talk it over. She looked back through the veranda doors but her mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she had gone upstairs to sleep? She hadn’t been all scared of the mask, though. They probably felt the same thing, being scared and amazed at the same time. Perhaps grandma had felt the same thing before she had become weird.
She wished that she had brought her phone from inside so she could take a picture of herself wearing the mask. She would look really badass.
Something had moved, there at the edge. She looked closer. There were a couple of fireflies dancing between the trees – pretty – and something else moved behind them. A cat? Maybe a weasel? She crept closer and tried to feel badass and terrible and not at all scared.
When her eyes got used to the darkness she saw that it was a fox. What a coincidence, she thought, I am a fox, too. Let’s be friends. She held out her hand and made clicking noises with her tongue that sounded quite muffled and sinister behind the mask.
As her eyes got even better used to the darkness, she saw that it wasn’t really a fox but the mask of a fox, only much better than the one she wore. That made her feel scared and envious all at once. It looked friendly and almost lifelike, maybe a bit like a really good drawing of a fox but it was clearly a mask. There was no rest of a fox, no body, no paws or furry tail. There was just a restless, chaotic mass of shadow and shape that bent where it shouldn’t.
There were claws that clicked with a hint of impatience.
There were hisses and purrs that came from no mouth.
The mask raised itself from the ground. A sweet voice with a hint of darkness said, “Hello…Sister…”
This was like no game she had ever played. The lights from the veranda behind her were suddenly turned off. She wondered if she should run…
Image by Henriette Wiltschek
Text by Sebastian Buchner