The Mask of the Belle
By: Vanessa K. Eccles
That is when I saw it, sitting inexplicitly on the third step. I was keenly aware that I had seen it before, and that the memory, though almost forgotten, had been important, pivotal actually. The silver sequins gleamed in the dull light. The bright, royal blue paint was unscratched. I stared; trying to place the time when I had once saw this thing before, the time when I had once worn it. That déjà vu moment faded into a faint memory from my childhood.
I was eight. The Christmas lights in October stood out to me as odd. Mom had spent hours decorating our back patio into a masquerade paradise, adorning every cranny with white lights. On our brand new patio table, she layered wine glasses into a small tower. Sparkling Champagne sat tauntingly on the table before me, eye height. Anything that sparkles is like chocolate to a child.
I watched my mom put on her make up while she sat on a red velvet stool in front of her antique vanity. She looked excited, happy. Her mask lay on the bed. We had spent a couple of hours the night before with supplies sprawled out in front of us on the floor making the perfect mask for each of us. Mine was blue; hers was red. She had feathers; I had sequins. Mine matched my dress and hers hers. She painted her lips a dark red that made them shine in the light. I sat on the bed and picked up her mask to hand to her when she was done.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Why are we wearing masks?”
She bent down and placed her arms around me.
“Sometimes people like to wear masks to make them feel like someone else. It’s for fun.” She smiled, took her mask, and placed it on her face.
“How do I look?” she asked.
“Like someone else.” I smiled.
She laughed her little laugh and stood in front of the mirror smiling at her reflection.
I went back to my room and stood in front of my princess mirror and mimicked my mom’s actions. I put on my Barbie lip gloss, my blue dress, and my sparkly mask. I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to smile, but I was instantly annoyed at how I could hardly see anything. The mask was itchy too. I crinkled my nose and pushed the mask up on my head like a headband.
I sat quietly, curled up on my dad’s recliner in the living room as the guests arrived; each dressed in elegant attire and masks. Mom seemed to know who all of them were, but I was completely confused. I only knew who people were based off the children they brought. A few of the guests had children, of which I had grown to know and despise, with the exception of Tiffany. She was my best friend. As soon as she walked in, I knew that tonight was going to be fun. Tiffany had a pink mask on her face and lace gloves on her hands. She looked like a princess.
Once all the guests arrived, Mom and Dad made a toast, and the music started. The kids were told we could play in the garden or inside.
“Put your mask on, Ally,” Mom said as she slid it down my face. “Remember, tonight is for fun. Pretend like you’re someone else.”
“Who should I be?” I asked curiously.
“You’re a princess.”
Darwin ran loudly about the yard with the other two boys that were there. They played hide-and-go-seek, and after a while of playing with our dolls, Tiffany and I decided to join them.
“We want to play,” Tiffany said as we approached the boys.
“No girls allowed!” they screamed in unison.
“That’s no fair!” She pouted.
I watched her angry, hurt face. Then I thought of something.
“We aren’t girls!” I screamed back to them.
“Then what are you?”
“We’re princesses,” I sassed.
They laughed. That was not the response I had expected. Why were they laughing?
Finally, Darwin said, “Tiffany may be a princess, but you aren’t!” They giggled again.
“Why aren’t I?” I asked innocently.
“Princesses are pretty.”
Darwin and the boys laughed incessantly. Tiffany glared at me with sad eyes. I felt my face burn with anger and tears, and I knew of nothing else to do but run. So I did. I ran out of the yard and into the woods right behind my house. There was a giant oak spreading its huge arms out in the night, and that’s where I fell to my knees. Tears poured down my cheeks. I ripped the stupid blue mask off my face threw it in the dirt. I curled up at the base of the tree and cried for what seemed like forever. I felt my eyes grow tired and droopy, and that is when I saw her.
It was day.
She was sitting and reading in a hammock way up the oak tree. She was wearing a long, simple white dress. Her dark hair was loosely braided, and it hung over her right shoulder. She was pretty in a natural sort-of-way.
There was a small, round tree house perched at the edge of one of the big limbs on the oak tree, almost like a fruit would hang from a fruit tree. I noticed that the tree looked different in the daylight. There were dead vines from the base of the tree up to where she was. Each vine felt coarse and prickly as I ran my fingers across it. The vine was broken in parts, and it looked almost like snakes crawling up.
Apparently, she could not see me, which was good since I did not know how to approach her anyway. She hummed a sweet song, and I saw her smile when she saw a red bird.
I watched her for a while until I heard something in the distance. I heard several voices. They were loud and brutish in tone. She heard them too. She let out a long rope ladder that reached to the ground. She climbed down and waited at the base of the tree for the guests.
She was so close that I could almost touch her, but there was something telling me not to do or say anything. I just felt the need to be quiet. I noticed that a long necklace with a fish emblem hung from her neck. I also noticed that she was probably in her twenties.
“Can I help you?” she asked as the people approached.
There were two ladies and one man. He was dressed in a black but rather casual suit and the ladies were dressed in Sunday clothes, all were about her age. They looked like people from my mom’s party because all of them were wearing masquerade masks. The blonde lady wore a black one that had blue tears down one eye. The other lady wore an orange one with feathers that reminded me of flames. The man wore a simple gray mask with nothing else on it.
“We were wondering if you could help us find Richman?” They looked at her with a strange expression. They looked as if she was the one that was wearing a mask on a normal day.
“You follow the road that you were on for another half mile, and you’ll be there,” she answered.
“Thanks.” They turned to leave but hesitated.
“We’ve heard about you,” the one with the orange mask said. “You’re the girl who never wears a mask.”
“That’s right,” the tree girl said boldly.
“Why?” the man asked curiously.
“Because I have nothing to hide.”
“We don’t have anything to hide either. These are who we are,” the one with the crying mask said.
“Well, this is who I am,” my girl answered softly.
“Do you just want to be different? Do you want to be rejected by society? Why would you choose not to wear a mask like everyone else? They represent who we are as people,” the man pressed for an answer.
“I don’t care that I’m different. A mask only represents who you want to be as people, not who you are. This is me.”
They left murmuring something about how strange she was and how strange she looked.
I spent all day watching her doing everything from brushing her hair to feeding the birds. Her life seemed peaceful. She is a princess.
At dusk, we heard a horse coming towards the tree house. I sat, huddled up against the tree, while she sat at the window of her house looking out.
A boy came riding up on a dark brown horse with large white spots. He wore a mask that was silver with white trimming, but he looked to have a handsome face. My tree girl looked at him through her tree house window.
“Sarah, won’t you come down to speak to me?” he yelled up to her.
“There is nothing more for me to say. I’ve said everything that I have to say to you, James.”
She turned her back on the window, and I lost sight of her.
“I come to tell you that I’m ready to take this mask off for you. I don’t care if we have to live in exile. I don’t care if we will be persecuted for by nearly everyone. I want to marry you, Sarah.”
I saw the rope ladder be slung out of the house. She climbed down hurriedly; when she nearly reached the ground, he came and scooped her up in his arms. She buried her head in his shoulder and cried.
“Please don’t cry. I love you for who you are.”
“I don’t want you to choose a life without a mask because of me. I want you to believe in who you are without it. I want you to believe,” she cried.
He sat her gently on the ground and tilted her face to him.
“I believe,” he said and slowly removed his mask.
An overwhelming sense of joy passed over me, and I clapped in excitement. Then I realized my loudness and ceased. They did not notice. She glared lovingly in his eyes and he in hers.
I woke up at the base of the old oak. I could hear my parent’s party music still playing. My face was still moist from the tears. I stood up, dusted the dirt off of my blue dress and walked to where I had thrown the mask. I picked it up and went back to the base of the tree. I dug a small hole in the loose dirt and buried the mask.
“Where did you go?” Tiffany asked when I walked back into the backyard.
I did not answer. I just walked straight over to Darwin and said, “I am a girl, and I am a princess. You can just get over it!”
We all played together for the rest of the night.
As that memory came back to my mind, I understood the meaning of the dream more. I thought back on last night’s events and realized that I had somehow found myself like everyone else. I was wearing a mask trying to impress the “man of my dreams” when really the real man of my dreams loved a princess for who she was.
I took the mask home with me that day as I went to visit my mom. She laughed when I told her how I remembered that party from way back when.
Before I left, I went outside and found that same old oak where I had buried that mask beneath long ago. I dug in the same spot and found it. Old, peeling, and falling apart, it lay. I put the new mask next to it and covered them both back up with dirt.
I stood up and felt the breeze blow across my face. I let my long brown hair down, looked up into the massive arms of the tree, and for the first time, in a long time, there was hope.
When I got home to my apartment, I walked into my sunlight-filled bathroom, stared at myself in front of the mirror, and realized that without the mask I looked different. I hardly recognized myself. It was like seeing an old friend’s face again that had been locked away in a distant memory.
Based off the prompt: On the third step, I saw...
Photo from Photl.