It happened at the Exchange of the Masks, during Cinco’s 20th year. In any natural society, there has to be a means of keeping peace. One way might be a regulatory force that shuts away those who assault their neighbors. Alternatively, citizens could group together, and collectively get revenge for anyone harmed by an outsider. However, an age-old method, pursued by the wise men of every age, is amiability towards all men. And what better way to accomplish this than anonymity?
Every adult, 17 or older, is given a complex mask, veiling their identity, with annual swaps between pairs to re-encrypt their identities. Children have their own masks, with gaps around the eyes that shrink at every birthday, to slowly guide them into their world of brothers with interchangeable faces.
As a toddler, everybody is a friend. A curious glance at a fellow tamer of the teeter-totter commonly results in at least one new companion, albeit occasionally only for the day. As the days lengthen, a young child realizes that he or she might not particularly like having a certain category of kids as friends. As they grow, more and more kids are hidden away in the friendship dumpsters of their best friends of days past. On the day of Cinco’s passage into adulthood, every single one of his acquaintances was hidden in a box, except one. Corwin was Cinco’s guide through the world, as a tall streetlight can guide a late night cyclist. The monitors had always been a bit distressed by the two boys constantly being together, especially when their eyeholes decreased to the size of acorns. They would soon have to say their farewells, only seeing each other as fellow members of a crowd of somebodies. The younger one seemed especially dependent, and certainly had a tough path to take in the future.
“You’ll never speak easy in the crowd,” remarked Corwin, as they pressed through the crowd of blank people in the main forum, their bags of produce, fresh for the passage feast, rubbing against their backs. The white stone produced a hailstorm of rumbling sounds, a tapdance the boys didn’t know the steps of.
“I can’t, Corwin,” the younger boy’s limestone voice scuffled past his mask, “Not when there are combs of statue-men observing – we are the only people with eyes in this place.” He ducked to the side of another white-robed creature, its mask’s sides painted with wide blue circular irises. Yet two pinpricks in the center allowed its wearer to see.
The taller boy created a short hum of amusement. “Brother, you’re bringing this up on the day you get your blind,” he responded. “I think you should’ve fretted about this matter a while in the past.”
“Don’t pretend you’ve never heard me talk about this.” Cinco roughed the other boy’s heels with his sandals, “Who decided it was a good idea to pretend we’re all the same person, anyway? I’d like to have a word with them, and ma-“
“That’s exactly why we wear them!” the boy interrupted, swinging around to face Cinco. “Nothing useful is derived from being aggressive to someone because of the past! If you want to change something, address it!” With finality, he thrust a finger at the Centre of Opinion, a thin stage to one side of the forum where a white canvas man with a scrawled face and black shackles was howling for his freedom. A woman was giving a speech on one side of the stage, and masks debated on the floor.
Cinco’s blind – his first adult mask – was white stone, thin as his little finger. Trembling, he slid the pale shield onto his face and hooked the wings found on the ends of the flexible sides around his ears. He had an eyelash resting on the surface of his right eye, forced there by his second face. Turning to the side, he saw Corwin’s face for possibly the last time as he examined his mask. It was a rounded one with a tall prong jutting from the top, tangent to the skin of the false visage. It, like most, had a set of fake eyes – goofy purple teardrops embossed, the pinholes of vision centered inside the pinched rings. A few colored hearts and stars decorated the cheeks, tears of joy reaching down to the absurd painted smile.
Corwin’s countenance was stern and serious, taking in every detail of the event, his last anecdote of a time he would never see the like of again. There was a stillness, silent as the slightly older boy worked up the strength to cast off his youth.
“Your blind’s pretty feminine, Cor,” Cinco observed, his voice splitting the air like a hammer and nail. The young man glanced up for a second, a look of distaste expressing itself through him for the moment.
“It’s still good, though,” Cinco hastened to add, “And even if you don’t like it, you’ll get a new one at our first swap tomorrow.” Corwin lifted the mask up to his face and attached it, exchanging his amber eyes for a wide maroon dementia. “This face doesn’t define me, it saves me from prejudice,” the star tears buzzed with the vibrations of his speech, turning his voice into a drone. “I think it will do so perfectly.” He was calm and formal.
“Uh, okay,” Cinco said to the stone wall his face met, “But, uh, do you like mine? Yours is pretty exciting, yeah.” The husk stared back at him, without a word. “I particularly like, uh, it. The stripes make it look a bit splintered.”
“Three years”, the crumbling man thought to himself as he skulked down the rough gray alleyways of hell. “That rose hasn’t even shown a thorn in three years.” His mind brought his stumbling body to the end of the tall passage. “Three years of exchanges since we’ve seen each other, much less conversed.”
“So many masks. I’ve gazed through so many masks that I can no longer see the light of the world. No one has known my name since the time before. On my first swap I gave my mask to a tired faced old woman, her forehead creased with the weight of time. The mask had thousands of black dots, casting the eyeholes into a haystack. I was a plague victim – a dalmatian of investigation – but I never found Corwin again.”
“The next anniversary of our departure. Two years ago. At the time I had one of the few old masks. It was made of wood – the light sand color trying to tear through its jail of white snow. That day, when I took off the mask, a grown man was looking at me. His eyebrows were knit with fear as he handed me the shivering casket. The mask was a square, sharp on the side joints. A horrible, mauled face was scratched on the front, the black paint of the initial smile worn to a ghost. That day, I had two gazes: a face for the killer that murdered me and a memory of the ghost of a friend. But I never found Corwin again.”
“Another year passed, of faces hiding from me in their stone white castles and holy cathedrals and halls filled with golden chalices of sloshing joy and hive utopian community spirit. How I wished to thrash their consecrated fortresses down around their necks, and bleed into the eyes of the curdled baby that suckled behind its mother and its mask. Maybe this time, I thought. That year I brought a gnarled, tree mask to the Exchange. Maybe this time. The wooden stone clamped to my eyes burned like a cattle brand – I was blind, blind, blind. I tore the mousetrap from my eyes and stared at the boy that stood before me, my heart rumbling around like bleating goat. To think I shouted his name at that terrified boy, while he was removing what was most likely his blind. I bet he’s lost someone, too. The mask he gave me was blank.”
The lost man fell into the crowd of the Exchange, meandering through the crowd.
“A year later.” He was wearing a mask with the ears of a cat, and wide owl eyes.
“Another year later.” Whatever that was worth. He stood, and faced onward. A shell looked back at him – blank – perhaps the very mask he had acquired a year ago. ‘Fancy that’, he mused.
The other party faced Cinco – the transaction was very well pending. Cinco reached back and unhooked the mighty eyed fox from his ears, blind as the white rock passed his face.
“Corwin,” he said, eye to eye with his lost father, brother, teacher, and friend. “Corwin.” He was sure, and reached out to him.
But the other party did not respond, and instead backed a way, a grimace of extreme disgust compressing his face into a rippling gel. The veil of nothingness again began to drop over his face. “Corwin, no!” Cinco yelled, his vocal cords hanging over his jaw like a vacant maypole.
The crypt did not speak as it backed into the crowd, a white dome for an expression.
Cinco again shouted his name, fighting through the crowd. He cast his mask into the sea of clouds and chased after his lost life. “Corwin!”
To his right: A blank mask! He tore it from its wearer, but no – a man, confused by the sunlight and the desperate face. Voices were beginning to reach him, but they fell away. The only sound Cinco could hear was the dead rushing of panic. All around him! Every mask was vexed by the man with skin, the man with eyes and dynamicity! Every mask was white and plain as the one that had torn his heart yet again from his breast. He reached out, flailing and ripping away the shells of people. Round faces stared back at him, pale from years of hiding.
The Exchange was seething. “Corwin! Take off your mask!” Cinco yelled, spittle bouncing off of the smooth masks of the undulating congregation. “Everyone! Take off your masks!” he yelled. A fist crunched his cheek in response. Soon, blows were raining down upon him, and he struggled to tread water. To his right, a gap between waves appeared, and he bolted for the opening.
Crash! He was thrown to the ground, shattering the faces he had removed from the peoples’ heads. Giant men in black masks were pushing back the terrible parade of mannequins and dolls, while others held Cinco’s arms to the white floor. A tall man with rubber gloves stepped forward, brandishing a syringe. The cursed smile on the man’s carapace burned into Cinco, for he had no mask to cover his eyes – no shell to hide him – but he never found Corwin again.