The keeper of the mask museum had turned off the lights, locked the door and left. Every night, the masks, helplessly pinned to the walls during daylight hours, came alive. They stretched and yawned, smiled and laughed, cried and shouted in relief; the immobility imposed on them by their makers lifted, until the first rays of daylight crept in through the dusty windows in the morning.
The keeper arrived late, late enough to allow the masks to shrink back into their rigid grimaces. During the day they slept on their hooks.
There were masks from all over the world and from all the ages. There were ritual masks, ceremonial masks, tribal masks, theatrical masks, horror masks, pretty-face masks, witches masks, goblins and gremlins, fearful masks and wise men masks; any kind of mask you can think of, they were all there.
Nobody much came to visit the museum, which was a real shame. The old keeper simply had no idea how to attract visitors; he just opened the doors in the morning, shuffled in, and with a feather duster tickled the masks until the dust made him sneeze and sniff; then he sat on his stool in the corner and unwrapped his sandwiches. On rainy days a few people came in for shelter, took a look round and said: “hm, interesting”. But they left again as soon as the rain stopped.
One night a jolly carnival mask had had enough of this state of affairs. “We must do something”, she said. “Yes, we must”, the others agreed. “But what?” said a fearsome African mask. “We only come alive after dark, how can we attract visitors at night?”
They all thought long and hard. There was no laughing or shrieking that night, all stayed where they were and pondered.
“I have an idea”, said a wise man mask. “Nearly all of us have magical powers and although we promised never to use them without humans, perhaps we could make humans use us”.
“I don’t know, isn’t it rather dangerous?” asked a timid young-pretty-face mask. “Nonsense”, said an old witch mask, “nothing ventured nothing gained. We all know that our keeper will die of a broken heart soon if we do nothing”.
There and then they cast their spells. Lightning flashed inside the room, the rumble of drums shook the walls, a fearful screeching and howling arose, tigers and snakes, monkeys and a whole herd of buffalo raced about the small space between the shelves. The keeper’s stool was knocked over in the mêlée.
But the masks knew what they were doing and eventually order returned, the stool righted itself and just before daybreak they assumed their usual places on the walls.
The very next week a rich man in the town decided to give a masked ball, using real masks, not those silly little hand-held eye masks, which only pretend to hide your face. He called upon the keeper and requested the loan of all the masks in the museum. He promised to pay handsomely for the privilege.
The keeper sighed. “Has it come to this”, he asked himself. “Should my lifetime’s collection be used for sport in a rich man’s house?”
Still, the money would be most welcome; he needed a new feather duster and his stool had become strangely rickety lately. So he agreed.
The masks were duly packed up and taken away. The little keeper felt quite tearful when he saw his precious collection leave the museum; several times he had to remind himself of the handsome sum he had been promised in return, which made him feel a bit better.
When the masks were unpacked at the rich man’s house and each guest chose the one he or she wanted for the evening, something strange happened. They all chose the mask which represented the exact opposite to their real life character and position. The rich man himself chose a beggar mask, the pretty young women chose tired old witches faces, the tired old women chose pretty-face masks, handsome young men became ogres and old men became handsome performance artists. The scientist chose the shaman’s face, the gossip became kind-faced, the apothecary became the wise woman and the old roué suddenly looked innocent. Pretty young women lost their bloom and ugly old women turned into their youthful selves.
The masks were hard at work all evening. As the heat rose and the champagne flowed they clung to their faces with all their might; without their hooks they were in danger of slipping off; little by little they melted into their bearers, becoming part of them.
The guests, their senses heightened by dancing and laughter, alcohol and a strange euphoria they could not explain and therefore did not question, gradually became aware that a power quite outside their control had taken hold of them. A power which, though not unpleasant, was beginning to seep into their personalities. They felt they were becoming more and more like their masks.
Twelve o’clock struck, it was time for the masquerade to end.
The unthinkable happened. The masks refused. After years of hanging on a dusty wall in a museum they felt like making a night of it. Although very tired now, they had had so much fun, they were unwilling to give up. They had also become attached to their bearers, separation would mean a painful wrench. They knew that daylight would render them immobile again, see them packed up and sent back to the museum.
So they refused to be separated from their faces. In the morning the keeper came and pleaded with them. They had grown rigid in their determination to stay just one day more. They would come off in the evening, after dark, they promised.
I don’t know if the masks kept their promise. The little museum has been shut for a long time. Perhaps the keeper has locked his masks away, never to let them out again. On the other hand, perhaps they have become so deeply united with their faces, that they are still out there in the world, causing mayhem and murder, fear and loathing or joy and happiness.