I took the package from here and slid the lid off. The hollow eyes of a mask stared back at me, its mouth curved in a fixed smile. I took it out carefully, barely allowing myself to touch the cold porcelain. It felt delicate and light, like it would shatter if I breathed too heavily.
“Here, let me help you put it on.” My mother smiled, revealing the dimple on her left cheek, and tied the ribbons that bound the mask to my head. I lowered my hands slowly, half expecting the mask to fall to the floor. It stayed, though it felt heavier on my face than it had in my hands.
“Perfect fit!” proclaimed my mother. “Let’s go show your father.”
“My nose itches.” I reached for the ribbons, trying to untie the knots.
“What was that? Oh, darling, don’t take it off yet.” She clasped my hand and gently pulled me along as she walked.
“But my nose itches,” I protested louder.
“It does? Well, wait until we show your father, at least. Besides, you’ll need to get used to wearing it.”
“Why do I need a mask, anyway?”
She looked away. “Oh, there you are dear. Look, Nem is trying on the mask.”
My father bent down. “Looks like a good fit. How do you like it, Nem?”
“It’s heavy and my nose itches.”
He chuckled. “You’ll get used to it.”
“But why do I need it?”
My father frowned. “Don’t you like what your mother got you?”
“It’s a good mask,” I replied quickly, “but when am I supposed to wear it?”
“Outside the house.” He sighed. “Well, I suppose just to school for now.”
“Because it’s proper,” interrupted my mother, “and because I said so.”
The next day I sat in my seat at the front of the school room. I did my best to ignore the pointing, giggles, and whispers that erupted around me. They all kept whispering until the teacher arrived.
“Let’s begin with mathematics,” she announced. She turned to the chalkboard and began to write. “First, can anyone tell me the answer to the problem I gave you last week?”
“Nem can!” called someone behind me. The rest of the class giggled.
Our teacher turned back to the class and frowned, her eyes darting left and right. “Who said that?” She was met with silence and rows of blank faces. “In that case, would anyone like to tell me the answer to the problem?”
“It’s thirty-four and one quarter,” I replied.
“Nem, wait to be called on before you speak,” she admonished.
“That’s what I got!” called out Samson.
“Yes, that was correct,” replied our teacher. She turned back to the board. “Let’s begin the new material.”
“But you just said to wait to be called on,” I mumbled.
“Nem, no more interruptions or you’re sitting in the corner.” The class erupted into giggles again. “The rest of you be quiet too or we’ll never get through this.”
When our teacher dismissed us at the end of the day, we all rushed out. I quickly unknotted the ribbons on my mask and took it off to enjoy the cool evening air on my face. Everyone else had raced home by then, so I walked back slowly by myself.
I tried not wearing it the next day, but my teacher didn’t let me. At least the whispers died off over the next few days. I kept walking by myself, though; no one wanted to wait for me to take off the mask before we left. I couldn’t run with them because if I fell and broke the mask my parents wouldn’t be happy. So they went without me.
One evening I came back to hear voices in the house. I stepped through the door, hung my mask on its hook, and walked toward the sound. As I got closer I recognized the voices of my parents, then of our neighbors – Rose’s parents. I saw them as I rounded the corner, but they hadn’t noticed me yet.
“Children their age can be so difficult at the best of times,” said Rose’s mother. “Honestly, I don’t know how you manage with yours.”
“It’s not that bad,” replied my mother. “I will admit, there are moments. Some days more than others.”
“Most days, I imagine,” snickered Rose’s father. “A child who needs a mask? I’m not sure I would bother keeping it.”
“There are days when I wonder why we do,” chuckled my father.
My mother giggled and nudged my father. “Don’t let him fool you, he’s the soft one,” she informed them. “He insisted –”
She turned and spotted me, and for a moment her smile turned to a scowl as she looked into my eyes. Then she smiled again as she turned to the neighbors. “Excuse me for a moment.”
She stormed out of the room, pulling me behind her. “You are such an embarrassment,” she hissed. “Where is your mask?”
“On its hook,” I replied, confused. “Did I do something wrong?”
She grabbed the mask and shoved it into my face so hard I flinched. “Hold still.” She tied the knots, pulling harder and harder at the ribbons. The mask dug into my face. I tried to loosen it, but she swatted my hands away. “You can take it off when you sleep,” she snapped. “But always wear it around other people. Do you understand?”
“No, I don’t.”
I raised my voice. “I don’t understand. Why –”
“Don’t use that tone with me! Just wear it and keep your mouth shut!” She stormed back into the other room. “I’m so sorry, what was I saying? Oh yes –”
I slunk outside and hid in the middle of the abandoned field. I cried, tears trapped behind my mask. Hands trembling, I slowly took off the mask and dried it with my shirt. In the moonlight, it reminded me of a skull.
After I calmed down I walked slowly and carefully out of the field, but ended up on the far side. I had never been to the far side, and why should I? There was supposed to be nothing here. But instead, I saw a simple grave marker, cold stone almost black in the moonlight. I hesitated, then walked toward it. There was no name, no carvings, nothing to honor the person buried here. But next to it was a small, white shard. I picked it up: it was a single scrap of porcelain. It looked like it might be from the forehead of a mask, but if so, the mask had been even smaller than mine.
I ran home and hid under my bed. My stomach growled, but I didn’t come out until morning. I waited until I heard my mother leave for market.
“Father?” I called out.
“Over here,” he replied.
I approached timidly. “Father, why do I have to wear a mask?”
He sighed. “It’s just something that is expected of you.”
“Does anyone else?”
“Some people. No one in the village.”
I hesitated. “What if I don’t want to wear it?”
He stared in silence for a moment, then smiled thinly. “Just be a good child and wear your mask for your mother and I.”
That night I slipped into the storeroom with my bag and stuffed it with food. I took my father’s spare waterskin to fill at the well. Then I slipped out the door, my mask leering at me from its hook on the wall. I hated to leave it, but smashing it would make too much noise.
I began my march to the next village under the cover of a cloudy night. I had never been that far from home, but I had heard it was a two days journey. I could get more food and move on to the next village before anyone found me. If anyone bothered to search, that is. But I knew I had to keep moving.
I limped into the next village three days later with no food and an empty waterskin. I told everyone I was on a journey to visit my nonexistent uncle the next town over, so they let me restock in exchange for helping the baker with chores. I left the next day for the next town. So it went for a long time. Eventually I established myself as a merchant of sorts, bringing goods from one town to another, but never staying too long, and never really fitting in anywhere.
I only went back to my village years and years later. I bring myself to go into town, but I did stop to pay my respects at the unmarked grave. This time, though, there was a second grave. Atop it laid my old mask, grinning back at me.
I left again, but this time I never looked back.