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True Masks

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When I felt the cold of my husband’s hand through my skirts, I knew we had returned to the sunlit lands. It was ever thus. In his realm, I was never cold, no matter how closely we were entwined. But when we crossed into the world of men, his skin once again felt like ice against mine. The human air around us smelled of fir and wet snow, but something told me that winter had taken a turn towards spring. This might be the year’s last visit to Vysnia.

As Shofer guided the sleigh along the shining road, my husband curled his fingers more tightly around my thigh. Possession, not affection. He never fondled or caressed, as I had seen courting youths do in my village, or even some long-married couples. He rarely touched me except with purpose, even when we were alone in our bedchamber. As prelude, he preferred to watch, as I took the jewels he had given me from my ears and neck, and undid the fastenings of my silken gowns. Recently, he had given me a brush with an opalescent handle so translucent it almost glowed—made of the shell of some Staryk creature from frozen river. This, too, he liked to see me use, after I had freed my hair of its sparkling pins. Also his gift. The terms of the marriage contract, on the Staryk side, seemed to involve quite an elaborate sequence of gifts. Or perhaps he just needed me to look properly like a queen.

Was this the Staryk way of things, I’d wondered, or was it his own habit, unsurprising perhaps in one who valued his own dignity so highly? Or was he, despite the evidence, still wary of too much contact with a person whose blood ran warm, who might melt him if we embraced too long? Was he worried I would bring my sunlight magic even to this? I did not know. And whom could I ask? My mother had given me only brief advice before the wedding. She told me kindness and patience would make all things right. But those were two qualities not much on display in the Staryk realms. And though I knew Tsop and Flek would answer any of my questions now, I did not want to put them in the position of gossiping about their king.

In any case, it did not matter. I found this way of doing things pleased me too. I watched his face as he watched me, and I saw my power. Is it wrong that it excited me? That I had learned I could earn a gasp from those proud lips by letting my necklace slide between my breasts in a certain way? That I could push his restraint to quivering impatience by dawdling over the emerald buttons of my dress? When we did come together is was with an almost furious rush, plumbing the depths of each other’s bodies, searching closeness beyond touch.

The memory of those nights warmed me in the chilly sleigh, and I placed my hand over my husband’s. Perhaps I, too, enjoyed possessing him.

***

More quickly than I expected, the shining road arrived at my grandparents’ synagogue in Vysnia. It was already so noisy and full that our entrance caused no flurry. I slipped my silken mask over my eyes and patted the top of my head as a reminder; my husband donned his white and gold embroidered kippah, as he had for the first time at our wedding—the tiniest pursing of his lips expressing his annoyance that I thought he had forgotten. I tilted my head to acknowledge his proper behavior, and turned away to mount the stairs to the women’s section.

Upstairs, I squeezed myself between Wanda and my mother. Both wore half-masks I recognized from my childhood, felt embroidered with festive bits of red and white thread. I had visited my family only the week before, but each time I saw their faces, it cheered me how well they looked. The skin left visible by the mask glowed with health; my mother's hand as she squeezed mine was strong and warm. Both smiled at me with no hint of reserve, and it seemed to me, that although Wanda was tall and fair, and my mother small and dark, their smiles made them seem alike, as people do who live together and hold the same things dear. From the bima, the reading began, and at the first mention of the villain, Wanda and my mother shook gragers I also recognized from childhood to drown out his name. The noise level in the synagogue rose to a joyous racket, and I laughed out loud at the blessed human chaos of it all.

I peered over the balcony to find my husband among the men and see how he was taking it all. He had disdained a mask or anything other than his habitual luxury. On any other day he would have looked outlandish in that company, a silk-clad swan among black woolen geese. But tonight, the outfits were so various he barely merited a second glance—and I could tell that any eyes that did find him would slide away, and not remember that a Staryk lord had visit their festival. The first time we came here, I had been half-afraid he would not be able to cross the threshold; but he had stepped over it with the same hauteur he did every doorway. Of course. My husband was no demon, simply the ruler of a foreign land. And Jews had been marrying such forever.

“So many holidays,” he had grumbled, when I had told him we must go to Vysnia for this night. “Your people cannot lift a glass of wine or let the sun set without another prayer or fast day. What is this one for?”

When I told him it was in memory of a Jewish bride who had saved her people from the unjust wrath of a gentile king, he stared at me as if he thought it might be some trick. A distant historical event, I had assured him. “And when she asked her husband to save her people, what did she offer him in return?” he asked. His face was as impassive as ever, but I thought the story might have stirred uncomfortable memories of his own imprisonment by the Tsarina and near death.

“Only her love and loyalty,” I told him.

“A foolish king,” he said.

Now, as if he felt my eyes upon him, he lifted his angular unmasked face towards the women’s section. No expression on it, but his glance fell upon me like his hand. Mine, it said, and I was glad for my own mask that hid the warmth rising in my face.

***

After the story had been told, and the prayers said, the entire congregation, it seemed, gathered to celebrate at my grandfather’s house. Again, no one seemed to notice our arrival, except my family and Wanda and her brothers, who were used to our comings and goings. The crowd surged around us, cheeks flushed and glasses held high, for this night is was a blessing for these normally sober and severe merchants and craftsmen to drink enough not to be able to tell the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed in Mordechai."

And so they jostled, and embraced, and sang, and did not seem to see my husband and I. It was good to come, I thought. Good to honor the festival, and good to see my people feeling secure enough to enjoy themselves. I slipped some coins of Staryk silver into the tzedakah box.

But then one small boy running by in some game skidded to a halt and froze in front of us, eyes wide and mouth open. He was dressed as Haman, an absurdly large three-cornered hat askew on his head. If he'd also had a mask, he'd lost it. A girl, who must have been his sister, since she looked like him and was clearly exasperated with minding him, came up behind him and tried to pull him away.

“No” the boy said, looking straight at us with a child’s disregard for manners. He pulled his hand out of hers and pointed at my husband. “Minna, look! That’s not a mask—he really looks like that. It’s an evil faery, come to take away summer again.”

But the sister, barely bigger than him but feeling herself so much wiser, said, “Silly! Don’t you know everyone’s in costume tonight. And that’s just a story to scare children. Everyone knows no one can take away the summer.”

Still, the little boy stared until his sister dragged him away with a sharp jerk to his arm. Tomorrow, I knew, she would tell him it had just been a bad dream, and he would probably believe her. How quickly they forget, I thought. How quickly my husband’s people faded from memory, their sacrifices, and my own. It made me feel suddenly insubstantial, as if I had melted away behind my mask, in the heat of all these red-faced, steaming bodies. Was this what it would mean to make my home in my husband's lands? Would my life here become an empty story, a costume put on for festivals? I turned to my husband, worried he had taken offense at the boy's words, but his face was as expressionless as ever. And so I drifted for a moment, ghostlike, between my two worlds.

And then Wanda came pushing through the crowd, carrying a small basket with something wrapped in red-checked cloth

"There you are," she said. "I was worried you had left already, and I wanted to give you these--for your journey." She trailed off, perhaps embarrassed by her own haste and enthusiasm. She was dressed more richly than she ever had been when she worked for us in the village, and good food and shelter had made her fair hair thick and glossy. But her strength and determination were unchanged, and her hands, as she held out the basked, were only slightly less roughened by work and weather. She still wore her festive half-mask, but it seemed an absurd gesture; there would always be something in Wanda that spurned disguise.

"Thank you," I said, taking it from her. The cloth couldn't contain the sweet smell of sugar and butter, the half-tart scents of poppy-seed and prune: rich, human, and, bringing me back to my body with a sharp stab of hunger. "I'll try one now, if you don't mind," I said.

"Oh yes!" Wanda said, what I could see of her face lighting up with pleasure. "Your mother showed me how to make them this year. I thought I might have made the dough too stiff, but they came out well enough. Sergey likes the poppyseed--your father, too--but Stepon likes them sweeter--I made him some with jam."

She went of for a while about the mechanics of cooking so many, while I examined the neat, triangular cookie. "It's perfect." I pronounced. I took a bite, crisp cookie shell around the soft, sweet filling. "And delicious. Next year, you'll have to show me your secret."

Wanda beamed. She tilted the basket towards my husband. "Would you like one, Sir?" She had grown less tentatively towards him--and less angry, I think, for taking me away--but her voice still thinned out slightly when she spoke to him.

"No thank you, Panova Wanda." He regarded the hamantashen nestled in their humble wrapping. Though his eyes, I could see the cloth's roughness, the imperfect angles of the cookies, the spots where the black filling has smeared the pale dough. "Although they are very beautiful," he said, inclining his head slightly to Wanda, almost a half-bow. And his courtesy towards her pleased me greatly. The cold of his hand penetrated my dress as he slipped an arm around my waist, and that, too, brought me back to my living body. "Come, my lady, let us pay our respects to your grandfather."

***

It was very late when we arrived back at the glass mountain. My tiny mirror told me it was almost dawn. My husband watched me as I prepared for bed. I unbuttoned my gown, and let it slide to the floor, then unlaced my undergarments, and let them fall as well. I unclasped my earrings and necklace, and drew the jeweled pins one by one from my hair, listening all the while to his breathing quicken, the barely perceptible shift of his limbs as he tried to keep still. Finally, I stood naked before him except for the silken half-mask.

"Come," I said, whispering his name. "Will you undo this for me?"

And then his fingers, no longer cold, were on my face and neck, and, finally, his lips found mine.