Masque


 
I remember it all with sharpness of a blade against the throat.
 
My father had left the castle for the kingdom’s snowy borders. With him away, my mother faded into the background like one of the servants. And without him to coax my mother and grandmother into talking, the two spoke little at supper. My grandmother broke the silence to demand my mother see to it the gardens were weeded, the courtyard swept . . .  “What are you waiting for?” She gave my mother a sour look. “For it to happen by magic?”
 
My mother flushed but kept quiet.
 
“Have you forgotten my sisters are visiting tomorrow?” my grandmother persisted.
 
“No, Majesty,” my mother answered, keeping her voice low.
 
My grandmother again fell silent. Long after my mother and I finished eating, she still picked at her meal. To keep from fidgeting, which irritated her, I watched our shadows cast by the candlelight against the wall. Once the plates were cleared, she dismissed my mother and me with a wave of her gloved hand.
 
Outside the dining hall our cat, Puss, paced, in wait for us. My mother and I followed him up steep, winding stairs to a room high in the castle tower. As always in the drafty room, my mother swept out the ashes in the fireplace before lighting a fire. “Some things you never forget how to do,” she murmured.
 
Except for an oak wood chest, the room was bare. My mother unlocked the chest with a key hanging from a silver chain around her neck. Inside the chest lay cloaks and gowns made without stitches or seams, and slippers that reflected the firelight. On those nights my father was away, my mother and I would dress up and we’d dance in that room with a fire at its heart.
 
My father never tired of telling how he met my mother. About how she entered the ballroom wearing clothes so dazzling, they bewitched everyone, especially him. She never said anything at all about her life before she wore those clothes for the first time.
 
I grabbed a feather-light cloak from the chest. “Why can’t we ever be cross with Grandmamma?” I asked my mother. “She always is with us.”
 
“Besides your great-aunts, your grandmother is the only close family your father has left,” my mother answered. “We must be nice to her for his sake.”
 
“Papa has us,” I said. I was struggling to fasten the cloak around Puss.
 
“Yes, but there was a before us.”
 
“For you too.”
 
She said nothing but reached over to take the cloak from me just as Puss slashed at my hands. His nails dug into her arm instead.
 
I tried to soak up the blood with the cloak. She pushed it away. “No! That will ruin it!” she cried. She ripped the hem off her skirt to staunch the blood. “Nothing can ever be missing from the chest,” she said between gritted teeth. “Nothing.”
 
I was too frightened to ask why.
 
In the morning, I couldn’t find Puss anywhere in the castle. Leaving to search the grounds, I passed the kitchen and heard my grandmother scold my mother for scattering crumbs for the birds outside the scullery door. “You’re only encouraging them!” she screamed at her. I kept walking until I was out in the sunshine.
 
A rose garden bordered the path to the castle. I’d found Puss there before, his fur reddened with petals. I stepped into the garden and heard the clatter of carriage wheels. Turning, I saw a gilded carriage halt at the far end of the path. Two women emerged from the carriage. They squinted in the bright light.
 
I’d never had to talk to my great-aunts on my own. Panicked, I ducked under a rose bush. The women’s chattering grew louder. I caught my mother’s name and the words stepsisters, birds, peck, eyes, or at least thought I did.
 
Waiting until I no longer heard voices along the path, I rushed to change clothes before being summoned by my grandmother and her guests. I entered the castle through a passageway my father made me swear to keep secret. Puss lay drowsing on my bed.
 
That night my mother and I followed Puss up the torch-lit tower stairs in silence. Puss crouched by the bolted door as we laced up our gowns. I’d just turned twelve and hadn’t yet grown into mine. My mother’s clung to her like mist.
 
Unbraiding her hair with her long, delicate fingers, my mother drew near the fire. I started to dance. My grandmother’s ravings that morning echoed in my mind louder than the tune I hummed to myself. I whirled faster and faster, and one of the glass slippers from the trunk flew off my foot. It shattered against the stone wall.
 
My mother collapsed to the floor. Ashes from the fire clung to her gown. “I’m so sorry,” I sobbed.
 
She dragged her limp body across the floor, her hair, black as a raven’s wing, draping her face. She stopped within the circle of splintered glass. Gathering up the shards, her hands bled.
 
Puss rose. He padded toward her. The flames burned to embers when he passed the fireplace. His now-giant eyes glittered like ice.
 
Magic then bared its teeth. It had no mercy; she never expected it to.
 
And I lived bitterly ever after.

<END>



Amy Allison

Amy Allison's fiction can be found at Fiction365.com, HotValleyWriters.com, and RoseCitySisters.com. Her poetry has appeared in Cricket magazine. She lives in Southern California.

Her website is, www.byamyallison.com.



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