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The Masks

by Andrei Trocea (Romania)

Translation from Romanian by Fawzia Kane and Alexandra Sârbu, MTTLC graduate

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“They entered one into the other and didn’t fit in”

We make birds out of feathers and then hang them in the sky like garlands in a fir. Two buildings face one another, isolated from the rest of the world, guarded by a continuously winding boulevard. Two structures. One is slender, no adornments, the other low, surrounded by outhouses. One is the depressives’ apartment house, the other a mental hospital.
In between them, on a spider’s web, malformations ooze from one side to the other. He has been brought on the opposite building, I here.

Due to the correct dose of medicines every morning, I have started to forget.
I don’t know when I came; I don’t know anymore when I’ll leave.
One of the old fossils of this venerable institution, the patient on the sixth floor, tells me that I was sent down this February. It had snowed three days before, but on the fourth day, the sun revived the stifled noises. He had tied me up by the ankle and was firmly pulling me along. On reaching the gate of the hospital, he knocked three times. Nobody answered. He knocked once more. Nobody woke up reluctantly. That was the name of the doorman: Nobody Constantin. First, he sent his bloated face, contoured by a patriarchal beard, to ask who the traveller was and what he wanted at that deserted hour. Then the heavy body followed. A back door was opened. Eyes met top to bottom. My master and father apparently told him that my growing up was worrying him, that it was a sign I was sick. The old man listened carefully. He caressed his beard and agreed. The dwarf asked whether it was better to take me into his care, in order for me to stop growing and remain healthy. While words bounced from one’s lips into the other’s ears, my father’s right hand shamelessly rushed into the doorman’s pocket, bulging it. It seems that he had slipped in some magic dust. Otherwise it’s hard to understand how the doorman suddenly started to shrink. While he was getting closer to the ground, he rolled a cigarette, which in the meantime thickened and slimmed in his hands. He kept shrinking until he reached the dwarf’s height. There’s no knowing what they talked of afterwards, but they finally came to an understanding. Without looking at me, my Pa turned his back and left. He disappeared. The doorman emptied his pocket. Now rid of the magic dust, the man started growing back inch by inch. In the end, pulling me by the thread the dwarf had dragged me, he pushed me into the heart of the hospital.

And from then on I lay around around like a merry-go-round.
I know him. It’s a secret. Come closer and I’ll tell you. You! The one I’m writing with right now.
Let’s both sneak into the room where they keep me tied up. I’ll turn you into a pill and hide you under my tongue. Don’t fidget! I may swallow you by mistake. Come on, we’re there. Look, here’s the bed. I pull it a bit so we can take a look behind. Can you see something? No? How can that be? Actually, I can’t see anything either. I was joking. Look, there.

An inch above the floor, the soundproof wall is torn. We tear apart the cover and… surprise. There is light, as pure as anywhere outside. Now look carefully. Eyes can’t see what it is, do they? Touch it with your fingers. Now you’ve got it! You’re as happy as a clam. Stop dancing, the caretakers will hear you. An incredibly thin, almost invisible wire is tied up to the bed’s foot. Only if you finger the spot can you find it. Now let’s crouch on all fours. Here’s a riddle: where could an innocent wire, used for hanging laundry and perpetuating disease lead? From here on you can see, past the wall, the last floors of the apartment building. Yes, that’s where it ends. It is part of an infinite net, built for no apparent reason. But they don’t know. They don’t. You should see at night how sleepwalkers saunter along the spider’s web, hands in their pockets, and the moment they reach one of the balconies of the opposite building, they never come back. It is said that in the morning well dressed gentlemen come out in a hurry, ready to start a new day. Or the other way around. You can see respectable ladies sliding, bursting with laughter from the seventh floor straight into one of the hospital’s cells. And this is where they stay.

But this is not the icing on the cake. Listen! The thread you are feeling now in amazement leads to the character who visited me yesterday, a certain photographer. I sneak into his room when the tedium around here becomes too much. We talk and drink tea. If I want to know what is going on in the world, I visit his photos that are on view everywhere: in the room, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, above the tub. Afterwards I return. I don’t stay out for long, lest the nurses should notice. We are old friends. He is always beyond the walls. It’s the only condition. However, yesterday I had just finished my daily ritual, taken my medicines as you may take wafer in church, head bent and irises hidden under the brows. I had received more than the usual dose. They put me in the cell. Then he came.

Actually, he is here. He is here all the time. I gave him a quill as a gift so to prevent him from seeing me. This way, he will stay day and night to think of its message. He will read old books and manuscripts and then he will list all the meanings of the quill on a sheet of paper. He will ask great scholars. But there’s nothing to it. I might as well have given him a fingernail or a sliver of rust, from the edge of the bed.

There’s a full moon today tonight. I will crouch through this hole, climb like a cat on the wire, careful not to slip, and I will jump onto his balcony and from there, quickly into the mirror. I will lurk and laugh. How he toils to discover my secret! The assistant comes. Go out through here. Maybe… maybe you come back tomorrow.

That’s it. I’m afraid I will go back to him. Again and again until nobody knows who he is. I wrap the wet sheet tightly around me, so as to struggle desperately to free myself, to spend hours twisting on the carpet, midday’s rays always curious upon me. I hit the bed and get stuck between the table and chair. I almost choke. It’s my fault. I prepare for everything meticulously, at workshops and with registration cards from metropolitan libraries. At first, I bought dolls with big glass eyes and recollecting Egyptian drawings, I became so adept at turning them into mummies, that I still cannot undress them. They lie around like cocoons, as I had thrown them around the room once, in a fit. You might say that new species of butterflies are being discovered at my place: human-butterflies. That’s it. Too tight. Somebody untie me.

I can’t escape. It’s been three, maybe four hours since I’ve been struggling. If only there was a religion to thank me, to appreciate the gesture and make me a martyr. But there’s only him. Just him. The madman. Come on, neighbours, save me! I’ve exaggerated. The sheet is suffocating me, it’s drying and little by little it is becoming a shroud. And the walls… I can glimpse how a new part appears, tilted up and down. It looks like a huge comfy coffin. Where are you? A Pulitzer prize-winning photographer must die in a decent manner. My lips are cracked; they are itchy, preparing for the assault of the beads that follow a long thirst. Sweat overflows on my forehead. It’s as if the brain box is melting and decomposing. The sheet is tightening up around me. I struggle to get out. I scream. My veins swallow under my temples. My eyes burst from the sockets. I’m afraid not to lose them, because I will have to search for them under the furniture like they do in cartoons. I shout. I manage to tear the sheet into long pieces. I unwrap myself as into a new life. I drag myself towards the sink, exhausted. My feet are numb and have stopped responding to my commands. I fall down and get back up. I reach the sink, turn on the tap and drink in scoops the recycled city water, which is gathered from the subterranean springs of the cemeteries, the neighbourhoods and factories.

I allow my head to lean on my shoulder, then my body to imitate a fainting, just like in the movies, let it throw me on the floor, senseless. Sleep scours my veins like a serum, it caresses me first, then it cures me. Only my eyes remain opened for a moment, just enough to find the damn quill in a corner, to project it upside down inside me. I let sleep calm my nerves and above them, the skin’s alterations. I don’t know anything anymore. More and more confusing… more and more confusing… more and more confusing…

Evening. Caretakers come knocking from door to door, calling for the patients, gathering them on the hallway, in front of the counter where colourful pills are being shared out. I humbly take them and go back to my cell. I wait for everyone to think I have fallen asleep. I climb up to the next building to visit the photographer. It’s a cold night. It will rain. I climb up the invisible wire, I sneak through the hole, I cut off my fingertips. Next to me, a grey-haired old man is also going towards the opposite apartment building, but he’s looking for the floor below. I go up and jump onto the balcony. He is lying on the carpet. He’s sleeping. Holding my breath, for fear he should feel my presence, I get near the mirror. I sit behind murky waters. Sitting here is uncomfortable. I leave tiptoeing. I hold on to the ruggedness of the wall and enter another smaller mirror, where his only pride can be found: the Pulitzer Prize.

Evening. I wake up in the middle of the room feeling somewhat better. I lay aside the sheet threads. The quill is still in the corner. It has manipulated all my thoughts. Each object that I see now takes the shape of a quill. Each sentence passed by my conscience is light, it has parted hairs and a medium-thin body, empty inside. What does this mean? Has that the madman sent me away?

Fresh air is blown inside, timidly. I get up and look in the mirror where I’ve locked the Pulitzer Prize. Is it still me? I don’t know. It’s dark. I make out some faint features, just like in a sketch. The face doesn’t have a contour, only a shape, proportions and a smile. The corners of the mouth are lifted. I feel my cheeks and notice the lips are hanging down the chin, in contempt or disappointment. But in the mirror I smile with satisfaction. Apart from this, I cannot see my eyes and neither the prominence of my nose. I can only see vaguely the face, the smile and in the background, in contrast with the dark, the white quill. To my right, the balcony door is clearly wide open.

We make birds out of feathers and then hang them in the sky like garlands in a fir. I have seen him climbing up the banister, joining his heels in a salute.
I climb up the banister. I join my heels in a salute. Beneath me, the two buildings make tender love, enter staccato one into the other, becoming one. At a distance, the boulevard is spinning continuously continuously continuously.

Somewhere in Bucharest, opposite the Psychiatric Clinic Hospital, a new apartment building was built. Doctors say the released patients’ path is short. They go out the institution’s gate, go through a lime guarded alley, enter the other building, call the lift, go up to the last floor and then onto the roof. Disillusioned, and unable to fit into the lucid life anymore, they jump from there, from up there and crush themselves onto the sidewalk. The depressives’ apartment building, as the people call it, is the wall beyond the walls which surrounds the mind’s prison, with no hope of escape.

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