When She Wears the Mask

When She Wears the Mask

September 19, 2022

 

 

 

When She Wears the Mask

by Gabriel Thibodeau

 

 

When the girl wears the mask, she feels more like herself. Not prettier or uglier or more hidden or seen; the mask isn’t about appearances. It doesn’t care what people on the other side of its wood think about its acorn nose or picket-fence teeth. The mask only cares about the hug of the girl’s cheeks when she smiles. 

These days, the girl isn’t smiling much, though, and her wonderful mother, while stirring a wonderful soup, tells her she’s missed the point. “We’re not playing dress-up,” she says.

The girl looks at her mother’s wonderful apron. “Everything is dress-up,” she replies.

“Your cousins won’t be wearing them,” Mother says, “because of their asthma. Or allergies? I dunno.” She fingers a blue rectangle from a cardboard box and looks at it accusingly. “But we should still wear them. Shouldn’t we?”

The girl tilts her wooden head. “Are you asking me or the mask?”

“We should wear them,” Mother decides. “Not at dinner, of course, but yes.”

She presses the mask into the girl’s hand. It feels like fabric but also like paper; it’s stiff even as it bends. The girl much prefers the carved mask, how it always feels heavy and cool, as if her head is perpetually tipped against a chilled car window, watching the world gust by. Her father made it months ago, before he left the house and faded like smoke down the road. She likes to tap her knuckle to its cheeks and pretend he’s come back for her: Knock-knock! Who is it?

The girl’s aunt calls it a tribal mask because she is racist. What it really is is wooden. An oval scoop of pine with little horns fingering up from the top. It has eyes, sort of, but they blend with the forehead, following the globes of the face: two shallow wood-mesh craters the girl can barely see through. She can feel her lashes brush the wood when she wears it, though, and that feels better than seeing. 

For her wonderful mother’s birthday, the girl is asked to wear something “nice,” so she shrugs on her fluffy orange dress with its tulip hoops of tulle. She slips stars into her hair and steps into her sequined shoes. They sort of wink as she walks, those shoes, like her feet are made of sparkling eyes. She has a perfect little purse she grabs next, unspooling its long strap and hooking it over her shoulder. It matches her dress and the shoes, and when she looks in the mirror, it matches the mask too. For the finishing touch, she lifts the blue paper rectangle her mother gave her and stretches it across her wooden face: a mask for her mask.

The girl waves at herself in the mirror, a pixie princess with a crown made of trees. She feels frothy and light like a handful of suds, like she could turn toward the hall and waft down the stairs, floating like a dandelion to her seat at the dinner table. Her wonderful mother is probably already waiting there, sitting straight as a spike with the girl’s adoring aunt and the cousins who always stare at her, aren’t they just the best? 

When she settles into her chair in a hush, the girl’s dress will ripple across the centerpiece like the tendrils of a jellyfish. She will furl the fabric tight around her legs as her cousins watch from above their bow ties. The tall one will be so startled he’ll drop his fork with a clatter across the table: Knock-knock! And when dinner is served, she will bring her spoon to her masks and let the soup dribble down her covered mouths, trickling through the spun sugar of her dress, all the way to her blinking shoes.

 

 

 

 

 

_______________  

Portrait of Gabriel Thibodeau

Gabriel Thibodeau makes indie movies, edits children’s books, and writes queer stories, by every definition of the word. He is the proud recipient of a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, an 8th-place ranking among McSweeney’s Top 20 Stories of 2020, and a Speculative Literature Foundation Diverse Writers Grant, which was awarded in support of his novel-in-progress. (Yes, his novel is quite queer.)

 

 



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