By Kat Howard
Kora had heard the rumors. They were everywhere that fall, blown on the wind along with the golden fans of fallen ginkgo leaves. Everyone claimed to know someone who had been invited, though Kora spoke to no one who had attended. People told stories of masks and decadence, of a play that might have been a bacchanalia, of something that wasn’t a play at all, but rather an enfleshed dream masquerading as a drama. Of impossibility made concrete and stone in the condemned hallways of an abandoned building.
The invitation arrived with the rest of Tuesday’s post, unstamped and unmarqued. Heavy, black stock, printed in silver-gilt, and sealed with bordeaux wax. Impressed upon the surface of the wax was a pomegranate, split, seeds spilling like blood.
Kora’s hand trembled only slightly as she broke the seal.
There were three lines written on the inside of the card. An address. There was no need to print a time: Midnight was ever the hour of the impossible.
Sleep is dying, and has been for a long time now, through uncounted ticks of clocks and the flickers of thousands of too-brief candles. Sleep is dying, a slow exsanguination of dreams, a storm-tossed suffocation of nightmares. Sleep is dying, and she is not alone in her throes.
The building looked like nothing from the outside. Or rather, it looked like the kind of place that the latest victim in some murder-of-the-week show would be found, the building’s state of destroyed decay a metaphor for her own. Kora picked her way over trails of broken glass, amber-brown and snake-green, and climbed stairs that canted out from the rusting iron doors at an Escheresque angle.
The doors groaned open, as she reached their threshold. Kora glanced around, looking for CCTV units, and decided that whoever had installed the system had done an excellent job hiding them.
The designer also had a fondness for Cocteau, Kora thought as she stepped into the entryway. It was mostly dark, lit only by torches in fixtures made to resemble white-gloved hands. The doors echoed shut behind her.
As one, the torches shifted, lighting Kora into a hallway. She followed them, nerves making her blood fizz and her steps come fast and short. At the end of the hallway was an outstretched pair of white-gloved hands. The one on the right curled and beckoned, then opened flat.
Kora stood, puzzled. The hand repeated the gesture. Kora removed the invitation from her beaded purse, and placed it on the hand. The hand snapped shut, then flung open, empty. On the previously empty palm of the left hand was a deck of cards. They looked like plain Bicycle playing cards, but when Kora picked the top card from the deck, it was the Lovers, reversed. The card was from the Marseille deck, the young man pinned by the gazes of the two women he was to choose between as much as by Love’s arrow in his chest.
The left hand snapped shut, disappearing the deck. Kora tucked the tarot card into her purse, a replacement weight for the surrendered invitation.
The right hand offered itself to her, and when she took it, it became the handle of a door that opened before her. The room she stepped into was full of masks.
They hung on the walls in beautiful chaos, in every imaginable variety. There were plain strips of fabric, glittery half-masks balanced on thin rods, and layers of leather curled and pressed into shapes from the sublime to the grotesque.
Kora selected a Venetian mask of tarnished silver, filigree wings at the temples. It tied with ribbon the violet-red of the seeds at the heart of a pomegranate, and settled onto her skin as if it had been made for her alone.
Mask in place, Kora walked back through the door she had entered by, and into a new part of the building. Her heels were sharp against the warped wood of the floor, purposeful cracks swept up by the dragging hem of her skirt.
There were doors along the hallway. Some shut, some cracked open, some gaping like mouths. Kora heard fragmented conversations, and the tingling jauntiness of a circus organ. Ice blue light burned beneath one door, and her fingers ached from cold when she placed them on the handle.
A laughing woman ran out of one room, and she threw a smile over her shoulder as she ran. Three figures in masks and capes ran after her, racketing down the stairs. Kora followed at a more sedate pace, letting the character of the building sink into her skin.
As she walked, Kora caught a hint of some wonderful fragrance, burnt caramel perhaps, or the dark clouds at the heart of a storm. It curled through the air, invitation and seduction both. She followed the scent instead of the people, passing down a second flight of stairs, and then a third.
Kora stepped through dust and cobweb, and past heavy velvet curtains, and into the extraordinary.
Dancers spun by, no darkling throng, but color and light and texture glittering in kaleidoscope. Flames flickered in the air, without even candle beneath them. The air was scent and sound, and Kora barely had time to breathe it in before she was pulled into it.
She stepped, stepped, stepped, her feet skipping in a mad waltz. Her partner’s mask was horned like a stag, and it seemed for a moment that Kora heard the baying of distant hounds somewhere beneath the music as they danced.
And then there was only the dance.
As she became accustomed to the hectic pace, Kora was able to see the wonders she had fallen into.
One of the walls was a celestial map, and the stars and planets moved across it in stately progression. In the center of the room was a fountain, bubbling with a liquid the pale green of perfect porcelain. When they came closer to it, she could smell the sunburned darkness of butterflies.
At the head of the room was a banquet table. Upon it, a pastry burst into flame, and from the flame arose a phoenix, which circled the room, dropping rubies in its wake.
“It’s like the inside of a dream,” said Kora.
“It is made of dreams,” said the man she was dancing with. “Sleep’s abandoned children, all gathered home and called to their revels.”
Kora and her partner continued to dance. Other dancers were unpartnered, or gathered into ecstatic knots, but no one walked, and none remained unmoving. It seemed, as they crossed over a mosaic floor, past a woman with owl’s wings whose mask was made of flowers, that the room had grown larger.
Vines crawled over a wall, and they were thorned about with roses, the air near them thick with the scent of raspberry jam. Kora thought she saw a snake coil its way through them, poison-green and hissing, and she shuddered.
“How long have you been here?” Kora asked.
“Have you seen clocks or shadows in this place? Or any other devices used to capture time, and parcel it out in captive bits? Time is only breath and heartbeat, only now, only tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
Kora wondered then, how long it was that she had been there, masked and dancing, but then snails, delicate and jeweled, fell from the ceiling like rain, and she decided it did not matter.
And so she danced from partner to partner, from mask to mask. She gazed upon the Medusa, and did not turn to unfeeling stone. She spun in the arms of a woman whose mask was a living butterfly, its acid-green and black wings gently opening and closing on her face. She watched as the liquid in the fountain turned to poetry, and calligraphied sonnets and cinquains unfurled from it.
She had dreamt something similar once, ink running like water from a fountain, drying in splashes of iambic fragments.
The music stopped, and with it the call to dance. Kora reached behind her head, to check the ties on her mask. They were gone, though filigreed wings still curled up past her temples.
Kora looked around the room and could no longer see the door through which she had entered.
She had followed all the rules. She had neither eaten nor drunk. She had spoken no promises, no insults, no prophecies.
“To stay is not a trap, but a choice. Will you choose to remain?” The horned man. Kora could see now that his was not a mask. That the horns climbed from his head without artifice.
“I am supposed to say no.” Her hand traced the wings of her mask. “To lie, and cast aside my wings. To weep for lost mundanity, mourn my ordinariness, and beg you to send me home, back to broken glass and shit-smeared streets.
“To walk from here, into the harsh light of the ordinary, and never once look back.
“Are there any who actually do?”
“Most. The comforts of known life are powerful.”
“I have never found them so,” Kora said. She took the tarot card, the lover, pierced by the arrow of choice, from the beaded bag still dangling from her wrist, and handed it to him. “I choose to remain.”
At the height of dreams, a clock rang out.
Sleep is dying. This is no longer secret. Nights full of twitches and wakefulness fall like curses upon unslept beds. Night’s hours stretch into fire-eyed forever. Somnambulists pace, and pace, and pace.
Kora danced again in the arms of the horned man. In the air above them hung an unseen orchestra. Passion sobbed from the strings of violin and cello, and drums counted the time between steps, between heartbeats, but no musicians could be seen.
So close to her partner, Kora could smell the deep green fragrance of forests, the pleasant rot of leaf-mould and loam, and the vague musk of some great furred beast. Again, in counterpoint or descant, she heard the baying of hounds.
Then the music fouled, shattered, stopped.
A man lay on the floor. A tidy figure, in neat black velvet, dark hair a disarray of curls. His mask, sly and vulpine, had cracked down the center. A snake curled, green and jewel-like, in the empty socket of his eye.
Kora felt the floor beneath her sway, as if the building stood on fault lines shifting sideways from each other. The other dancers in the room were turning away, deliberately cutting the fallen figure from their line of vision. A scream tore the air, and the phoenix burst, once more, into flame.
Beneath the burning feathers, the body on the floor did so as well.
After the flames died, only the mask was left. The face of a fox, cracked in half, the ribbons that had held it on the dead man’s head still knotted.
“Will you help me?” the horned man asked.
“I need to take the mask outside, into the air, so that it might speak. But if I touch it, I cannot be certain of its answers—I am too close to require truth.”
Kora’s hand reached out, fluttered, paused. “Will I need to wear it?”
“No.” He sounded sickened by the idea. “No. Such a thing would be abomination, like dressing yourself in someone’s skin without asking them first.
“No, it will serve for you to carry it.”
“Then I will help.” Kora knelt down, and gathered up the pieces of the mask.
They passed through the door, and into the night sky. A night sky stranger and more star-filled than Kora had ever seen, in her city full of buildings and lights. The waxing moon seemed close enough to touch, if one were brave enough to risk the silver pinpricks of the stars that thorned around it.
Some other time, when she did not carry such a burden in her hands, Kora would have liked to stop. To look at what other wonders might be in the small pool where a ghost-white octopus roiled, to revel in the sharp scent of rosemary and lemon thyme that rose from beneath her feet as she walked, to stroke the leonine flanks of the sleeping gryphon. Those things would wait for some other when.
She had not known the man who had chosen for himself the face of a fox, but she owed him, she thought, the respect of her attention. In the midst of such overwhelming presence, she would mark his absence, and she would not look away.
The mask in her hands shuddered and strained, and the rent edges slipped over and under each other, until the mask was again whole. The strings unknotted, and coiled tight, tight, tight around her wrists. Kora’s hands grew heavy and numb, but not before she felt blood drip through the lines of her palms to fall on the ground.
Carnelian starfish bloomed where the drops landed.
“I think, if you were to ask your questions now, it would answer.” Kora said.
The man in the horned mask looked at Kora, and held silence long enough that five more starfish grew at her feet. His shadow behind him, a darker spot on the nap of the velvet sky, was first a stag, and then a cauldron, but never the shape of a man. Something greener than envy hissed and slithered in the darkness.
When the questions were asked, they were not the ones Kora had been expecting.
“Did you choose the mask for yourself?”
The mask took on weight in her hands, and Kora felt her heart go four-legged and furred, felt the glory of a hunt through sun-dappled forest, tasted the salt-copper brightness of blood in her mouth.
The dead man’s voice was a pleasant tenor, with the trained elasticity of a singer or actor. And though it was not her speaking, his words ravaged Kora’s throat, filling it with cinders and smoke.
“Were there any who sought to influence your choice?”
“I was swayed by nothing other than the memory of my lady, a fair vestal throned in the east, and the burning glory of her hair.”
“Did you tell the cards for yourself, before entering?”
“The ace of cups, reversed. I read my own destruction, carried it in my hand.”
As he finished speaking, the mask rent itself once more, and the two halves tumbled from Kora’s hands. Its strings unwound from her wrists, and the pieces of the mask drifted to the ground, soft on the fragrant air, goldengrove unleaving.
There was a crack at her feet. The octopus, bone white, had devoured the last of the carnelian starfish.
Kora knelt, and watched as the flesh of the octopus, lacrimal sheened and opalescent, turned blush, then rose, then heart’s-blood red. It crawled, suction cups like cold kisses on her skin, over her hand, and braceleted itself around her wrist, color flooding and drowning from its surface in syncopation with her pulse.
Once again, the air trembled as the cry of a clock rang through it.
Even eternal places change.
“Drink this. It will help the pain.” The horned man handed Kora a cup, full of a pale gold liquid. It smelled of apricots and summer meadows, and when she drank it was thick like honey, cool and fresh like the first snow of winter. When the last drops—three, two, one—fell upon her tongue, the ashes and smoke disappeared from her mouth, and her own voice returned.
“He is dead because he chose a card and a mask.” Her thoughts trembled around her own card and mask, chosen not for remembrance, but for the sake of choice, for the desire for wings.
“No, he is dead because he was murdered, cracked open so that his dreams might spill out and populate the air.
“I asked for his card and his mask because they were the reason he came, and who he was when he was here. His dreams of himself deserved to be remembered, to be spoken, to be known to all the ghosts of this place.”
The belling of the hounds was louder this time, a wild howling that raised the hairs on Kora’s arms and coursed adrenaline through her muscles. The wind, that caught her hair in greedy fingers and tied it into one thousand and one lovers’ knots, was full of souls.
Sleep is dying, and does not want to be. So sleep steals here and there, from wreck and ruin, from blood and dream. Small pieces, never missed.
Until they are.
Every paradise has a serpent.
The octopus, again ghost-white, had taken up residence in Kora’s hair, wrapping the strands around itself like sea wrack. It seemed content to perch there, as Kora danced her way through the strange party that had become her life, never-ending and sleepless.
The woman that she danced with wore the mask of a white hound, with ears red and wet with blood. As they danced, the woman’s eyes shaded from a warm brown to a bright poison-green.
The woman’s mask trembled, and her feet faltered in the dance.
Kora reached up, and held the woman’s head in her hands, fingers pressed against the mask. Fur prickled beneath them, and the urge to chase, to hunt, quivered against Kora’s skin.
The phoenix rose, burning, and Kora heard, as if from some great distance, the belling of the hounds.
The hiss of a serpent.
The strings of the woman’s mask untied from her head, and wound themselves around Kora’s hands, and still she held the mask to the woman’s face. She could smell the forest, fecund and dark, and could hear the inexorable chime of a clock. A small green snake, whip-quick, slithered over her foot. Poison-green, like the snake coiled in a dead man’s eye. Kora stepped, once, twice, and crushed its skull.
The woman sank to the ground. There was no body where she fell. Instead, a white hound with ears of blood red, the incarnation of the mask that dangled from Kora’s hands. Not dead, but translated.
And then the room was full of the howling of the hounds of hell, the red-eared Gabriel Ratchets, full, too, of the souls they carried. One more joined their number, as they harried the steps of the masked dancers. In the center of the room, the horned man, the phoenix mantled on his shoulder, the hunt wild around him. He met Kora’s eyes, and bowed.
Even eternal places change.
Kora wrote in ink that matched the pale luminescence of the octopus braceleting her wrist. Three lines. An address. She slipped the card into an envelope sealed with bordeaux wax, the phoenix in flame impressed upon it.
Dreamers were everywhere that fall.
More from Kat Howard:
Kat Howard’s short fiction has previously appeared in Apex Magazine (“A Life in Fictions” and “The Speaking Bone“), and can also be found in places like Lightspeed and Subterranean. Her work has been performed on NPR, and as the dance collaboration A Thousand Natural Shocks with Sharp & Fine. She currently lives and writes in the Twin Cities.