Masks (short story) | Gregory McNamee

Masks (short story)

Shark coursing through clear waters: then a range of weathered mountains, full of aspen and elk. Whirling fireball on the mooring lines of sailing ships, bursting and fading, flying off as a seagull to the islands of the blessed. Waterfall, jaguar, carpolite fruit of forbidden gardens. Spirit is spirit, but flesh is not always flesh, as all that glitters is not gold.

I was very young, perhaps too young, when I discovered the gift—the unimaginative will call it the curse—that changed my life from the normal, linear course of nicely linked events that ordinary people enjoy into the episodic, uncontrollable Chinese box that sets it apart, for better or worse, from that of other mortal beings.

Two days earlier I had celebrated my fourth birthday, and now on a calm April afternoon my babysitter and I were at play in the soggy meadow behind my parents' country home. Tired of coaxing me to scribble in my coloring books, an activity in which I had painfully small talent and smaller interest (for I have always loathed remaining within lines I have not personally established), she patiently initiated me in the mysteries of a childhood game that she, poor girl, thought it socially useful for me to know.

She smiled sweetly and called out, "Now, Charlie, Simon says be a frog!" and crouched on all fours, contorting herself into what she imagined to be a passable imitation of a great croaking swamp bull. I was not much impressed, for I failed to make the connection between her mimesis and God's own nature, but I dutifully tried to follow her lead.

"You're not doing it right, Charlie," she said. "Puff up your cheeks and squinch yourself down. Like this." Again and again she took me, her little tadpole, through the steps leading from human to frog, and I did my best to please her, as all my life I have endeavored to please.

Eventually she was satisfied with our experiment, a contentment she conveyed with a tight hug. Relieved, I began to picture the evening meal, sure that all my trials were over. But my sitter had other ideas, and she issued a series of commands: Simon says be a rock, a dog, a honeybee, a snake. I crouched and rolled and yelped and buzzed, longing for the moment when reason would dawn on my sitter and she would make for my parents' telephone to call her boyfriend. That moment was not forthcoming. Instead she cried, "Simon says be a tree!" and, standing still, raised her delicate arms straight over her head, touching her long fingers together and smiling an angel's smile.

I concentrated, my face set with a determined look, preternatural for one of my years. My fierce expression made my sitter laugh, and I resented her for it. I huffed, beads of sweat clustering on my yet unwrinkled brow. My toes left their Buster Brown shoes and plunged deep into the ground, hard and knotty. From my shoulders burst green shoots heavy with leaves and fruit. Pure cold groundwater coursed through my veins, and bark imprisoned my pink skin. I was delighted.

My sitter, amazed, screamed. She caught her breath, screamed again, gathered up her long skirt—for these were the heady days of the Earth Mother look—and set out on a mad run for our house. I stood silently for a few minutes, suddenly aware that I had just undergone a rite of passage, that a major change had come in my life, one I could scarcely comprehend. I knew only that it was good. I reveled in my newfound treedom for a time, quietly, even stealthily, careful not to alert the occasional passerby to my true identity. Then, Charlie once again, I toddled in my sitter's path, having composed a look of ineluctable sadness for having been so treacherously abandoned in the dark woods.

I learned on my arrival home that my sitter had left my parents' employ. Throughout dinner that evening, while the news blared out casualty reports from Hue and Pleiku, my father grumbled about hopped-up irresponsible college girls and the effects of jungle music on the American character, and I listened to him carefully and cleaned my plate.

Thereafter, hardly a week went by in which I did not change myself somehow. My sixth birthday passed, and then my tenth, and I devoured whole sets of encyclopedias and arcane zoological treatises in my search for new models of self-expression. Thanks to an unknowable roll of the genetic dice (although I suspect my grandfather's influence, for as a young man he had roamed the canyonlands with Navajo shamans), nothing lay outside my capabilities. Drawbridge, rotary engine, ant, leopard, two-stage rocket, mesa: each day brought a new and better transformation. My attentive if selfish studies were the best education a boy could have, although it left me unfit for the practical life. My parents were glad to see me occupied in something other than the drug-dabbling my agemates favored, and for the most part they left me to my wiles.

I knew what I needed to know by the time I was sixteen, but my parents insisted that I remain in school. Unutterably bored, I acted the class clown, modestly at first, then more provocatively. It all came to a bad end, though, when my trigonometry teacher, having carefully stenciled coordinates on the chalkboard and explained for the nth time the mysteries of the cosine, hurled abuse on me for gazing out the window at the inviting spring day outside. Without self-discipline, to say nothing of advanced mathematical skills, I would be a failure for life, he hissed. Undaunted, I hissed right back at him, having transformed myself into a diamondback rattlesnake of uncommon hideousness. In a righteous world I would have received honors in biology, but instead I was expelled from school the moment my teacher had been revived with smelling salts.

Lacking the proper credentials, I had no end of trouble holding down a job after I reached adulthood. Whenever I passed the threshold level of boredom on a given workday—normally well before the first coffee break of the morning—I would entertain myself and my fellow workers with the techniques I had so painstakingly acquired during my rigorous self-education: my Gila monster, for one, was the best there was, surpassing the real thing in sloth and fearsomeness. These metamorphoses freed me from all kinds of unpleasant chores, and while others balanced the books I dreamed of future glories. Productivity declined precipitously in every office to which I was assigned, and time after time I went out the door, heralded by dark threats of restraining orders and imprisonment and pistols.

My father, a man prominent in the city, heard tale of my doings and summoned me. "You're twenty-four years old now, Charles," he said. "It's high time you became a man. Stop this tomfoolery at once. I order you to find a decent position and settle down to business immediately." I smiled patiently while he glared at me, transformed myself into the stallion from Guernica to signal my existential malaise, and politely declined. Sputtering in fury, he telephoned his attorney and instantly excised me from his will, enraged at this betrayal of my class and situation by such frivolous pursuits. "We shall see how you get along now," he said, and I smiled again, stole a dozen imported cigarettes from the silver box on his desk, and made for the highway.

I never saw him again. Instead, I wandered the roads of America, aimless, passing the years. When my native country became tiresome, as it did in those days of discotheques and Republicanism, I set out to see the far reaches of the world. My repertoire grew with every country I saw, for, as well we know, travel broadens the mind: I passed months in Bali as a languorous dragon, in Zambia as a veldt-stalking panther, in Russia as an ever-inquisitive owl on the Kremlin wall, in Tibet as the godhead itself, kept from my sleep by the whirring of prayer wheels.

Time passed, and—it now seems strange to say—I became bored even with the wide world and all its adventures. Something was missing in my life; I needed companionship, stability, direction. I had by then reached my thirty-second birthday, after all, and now I sought purpose. One brittle cold winter morning in southernmost New Mexico, where my wanderings had for no good reason taken me, I found it in the form of a slender young waitress who, between refilling coffee cups and smiling at ranchers and glancing at her college history textbook, commented offhandedly that I looked hungry enough to eat a horse. I did just that, an Alaskan brown bear in her neighbor's corral. I had learned and perfected this piece in my youth, and it often proved its usefulness in hard times.

She smiled broadly when I returned to the counter. "Is that performance art, or are you trying to communicate something?" she asked, handing me a menu. Choking on a remnant of mane, I did not answer immediately. "Well, whatever," she said. "It's a pretty good trick, mister. You on TV or what?" She snickered when I asked for eggs over easy and toast and black coffee, but I saw the look in her eyes.

We married five weeks later and moved to her family's ranch in the nearby mountains, far from inquisitive neighbors and the temptation to impress the easily awed. They still talked about us in town, and so I nailed a sign on our gate that read, "Solicitors, preachers, and journalists will be shot on sight." With a few notable exceptions, the warning afforded us the solitude we desired.

We were happy. I worked at a variety of jobs, sometimes anonymously pulling a circus gig in El Paso or Silver City whenever the opportunity arose, as Rubberman or a bigtop Clydesdale; but most of the time I picked at a small silver mine on the ranch, metamorphosing in the cool galleries and shafts into whatever I pleased. I had to do this when no one else was around, for my wife would not allow me to entertain our children with my protean tricks, fearing that they would take on my irresponsible nature if given the slightest encouragement. It would not have mattered: my sons and daughters, I am sorry to say, accomplished as they are in other matters, have no talent whatever for my art, even under the simplest of requirements—Simon says be a frog, a bird, a snake, a tree.

I set down this brief memoir in my eighty-sixth year. I have known many cities and men and women. I have been almost everything at one time or another. My children have grown and scattered across the country to attend to their careers as teachers, lawyers, research chemists, market analysts; I seldom hear from them anymore, and that is just as it should be. My wife has been dead for a decade, and I miss her more than words can say. A host of cancers gnaws away at me, along with the usual infirmities of age, and no prestidigitation can shake them off or convince them to inhabit some lesser soul, unblessed with my gift. This does not bother me overmuch, for we all know that the world is unjust, and I have taken my fortunes as they have come.

In a large-print volume I borrowed from the county bookmobile not long ago, I found the story of Kallisto, the beautiful maiden whom Artemis the huntress murdered out of petty jealousy. Zeus himself, in a rare act of clemency, transformed her into Ursa Major, honoring poor Kallisto with a perpetual throne in the night sky—small reward, you might say, for her troubles. With the little energy I now command, I force her change upon myself. My legs and arms burn steadily with a pure white flame; my eyes illuminate the twilight and the dark mountaintops over which I rise to meet her. My name, I realize, the sole constant in my Herakleitan life—for all things flow, and no matter what Simon says we cannot alter that—will soon metamorphose into some strangely beautiful sequence of Greek, Latin, or Arabic sounds. I doubt very much, after all, that the astronomers will accept my registration in the star charts and ephemera under a name as inelegant as Charlie.

"Masks" is taken from Gregory McNamee’s book of short stories Christ on the Mount of Olives (Broken Moon Press). Copyright © 1990 by Gregory McNamee. All rights reserved.

The world exists in order to be made into a book.      – Stéphane Mallarmé