"Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
-Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist"
“In truth, I often wonder what people look like under their masks.”
As she said it Portia pushed her hand against her own mask, as if to assure herself it was still there. Her skirts brushed the nave's marble floor and she kept her eyes on it as she walked. The masks of the gods stared down at her from the cathedral walls.
“Do you? Well, there's little enough sin in that," said Father Marlowe, walking beside her.
“But isn’t it lust?” said Portia. “The gods say that to want to see someone’s unmasked face is the same as actually trying to see it.”
“The gods also say that to deny our human failings is to try to supplant them,” said Father Marlowe. His mask was a chubby, smiling face of gold, with curling hair at the temples. She noticed that, as he’d gained weight with age, he’d taken to masks that portrayed chubby cheeks and double chins to match his girth. The observation made her uncomfortable for some reason. The cathedral was empty except for they two, always the last ones to leave after mass.
“The gods give us sin to remind us of our place," Father Marlowe continued. "When you wish to see your husband without his mask, that is a lesson from the gods, and you should heed it.”
Portia’s steps faltered. “How did you know it was my husband’s face I was thinking of?” she said.
Father Marlowe’s belly shook with laughter. “Any woman would wonder about her husband‘s face after so many years of marriage. When my beloved Helen was alive I sometimes found myself dreaming about what her unmasked face might look like. Quite wicked of me; but I am as human as anyone else.”
They were outside now, with the statues of the masked gods in the courtyard, the spires and masked gargoyles of the cathedral looming behind them.
“All the same Father, I wish I could rid myself of these thoughts,” Portia said.
“There are times we are fortunate to have our human failings," said Father Marlowe. "Tomorrow is the Hallowmas Carnival, for example. What would we do at carnival time if not sin?” It seemed he winked at her from behind his mask, but Portia could have been imagining it. "Carnivals used to be very different when I was a boy. Back then we still practiced animal sacrifice.”
Portia gasped. “No!”
Father Marlowe nodded. “It was a different time." He patted her arm, once. The crowd on the street flowed in two directions around them. Father Marlowe’s grinning mask glittered in the late-noon sun. “I always enjoy our discussions, Portia. I look forward to seeing you again. Meanwhile, try to forget about your doubts tomorrow. And try to forget about your guilt too, if you can.”
“Yes, Father,” said Portia, bowing her head again. They parted.
Throngs of people moved around Portia, as if she were a stone in a stream. There was an endless procession of gaudy masks and expensive clothes. Bright colors were in fashion in the high quarter this year, and a kaleidoscope of scarlets, azures, violets, beryls, golds and tangerines fluttered by, the men in their short robes and long capes, the women in their long dresses and shawls. Masks were of gold and silver and ivory, accented by jewels and pearls and gilding, as if the members of the upper crust were trying to outdo the gilt framework of the city's soaring towers and graceful bridges. Portia straightened her plain dress and simple white mask. How could these people dare flout such excess in the eyes of the gods, she thought? Then she reminded herself that it was the gods’ place to assess people’s sins, and muttered an apologetic prayer.
The Great Bridge was full of peddler’s carts and wealthy merchants meeting for the day's last business. Little enough surprise to see that the maskwrights were all out with their wares, in anticipation of the post-Hallowmas buying spree. It seemed that animal masks would be back in fashion this year. Portia lingered over a gold one in the shape of a dove. It was too showy to be proper, of course, but she couldn’t help but look at it, and even to reach out for it, just for a moment, wondering if—
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said the woman next to her. Portia snatched her hand back. It was Beatrice, the count’s wife; Portia recognized her blue and purple mask. No two masks ever sold could be exactly alike, of course. That was why maskwrighting was such a demanding trade. “I was looking at the very same one,” Beatrice continued, touching the dove mask with a satin-gloved hand.
“I suppose it’s nice,” Portia said, trying not to sound too interested.
“It would suit you,” said Beatrice. “It’s high time I got rid of this old thing.” She gestured to her face. “If only we were permitted more than one…”
“That would be a sin,” said Portia, automatically.
“Yes, yes,” said Beatrice, much more lightly than Portia liked. “Imagine if someone had more than one mask: No one would ever know who they were. They could just put the new mask on and—”
“Become a different person entirely.”
“Yes,” Beatrice said, and then silence stretched between them. Portia started to squirm. “Well, it really doesn’t matter. The eyes of the gods are on us at all times, except on Hallowmas. They would know if we tried to cheat them by changing masks. That's what Father Marlowe says."
“Quite right,” said Portia.
“I do wonder sometimes what he gets up to when the gods eyes are off him. Don’t you?”
Beatrice bought the dove mask and then invited Portia to dinner with the count after the carnival. “And bring Cassius too, of course,” she said. Portia accepted, chiefly to be gracious, and regretted dawdling near the vendor the whole way home.
She arrived just as the gardening staff were leaving, to escape the chiding she had been meaning to give them all week about the rose bushes. The kitchen staff had delayed dinner twice while waiting for her, and the maids were late leaving because they had to wait for her to come home so they could receive their wages early, as they would not be on duty during the carnival. After she set the house in order Portia went to the east sitting room, where she found Alexander on the chaise lounge with his books spread in front of him. He bowed to her and said “Hello, Mother,” before consenting to be embraced. His eyes were bright blue behind his mask; he almost never seemed to blink.
“Hello, darling. Where is your sister?” said Portia.
“Here, Mummy!” said Octavia. Her voice came from behind the curtains at the bay windows, where she sat on the window ledge and looked out over the gardens.
“Treasure, what are you doing in there?” Portia. Octavia ran to her side, pigtails and curls bobbing around her peach-colored mask, speckled with stars.
“I was watching the gardeners, Mummy,” Octavia said. “And I was listening to them. They were talking about the carnival. It’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”
“Yes darling,” said Portia. Secretly, she frowned. She hoped Octavia hadn’t overheard anything off-color. She would have to tell the gardeners to watch their tongues. Just another thing to get after them about. Portia relaxed on the chaise lounge opposite Alexander, supposedly working on her embroidery but rather just letting it sit in her lap while she looked out the windows. Octavia curled up around her knees, lightly napping. Portia watched Alexander study, wanting to tell him how proud she was of him and but afraid to break his concentration. With as hard as he’d been studying the texts, she had hopes he’d be a priest one day. It would do well to finally have one in the family. But she had not yet asked Alexander what his intentions were, and he had not yet volunteered anything. The unblinking blue eyes behind his mask seemed always to be watching her.
It was another hour before Cassius arrived home. Octavia threw her arms around her father’s knees and Cassius picked her up and bounced her before handing her back to Portia. Alexander brushed the lint off his robes and greeted Cassius with a respectful half-bow. Portia shifted Octavia in his arms so that they could embrace, laying his brow against hers for just one second before pulling away.
“Darling,” said Portia, “it’s so wonderful that you’re home.”
“It’s the last day of the tenth month, Daddy," said Octavia. “Tomorrow is Hallowmas!”
“Is it?” said Cassius, feigning surprise. “Do you know anything about this?” he said to Portia, shaking his head as if bewildered. Octavia giggled. “And what would a very little girl like you know about carnivals?” he continued, his tone halfway between teasing and chiding.
“Alexander told me about it,” said Octavia.
“Did he?” said Cassius, turning to his son. Cassius' mask was slate-grey and bearded, with great black holes for his eyes. The set of the mouth was passive but often appeared to be frowning when his voice and body language made his displeasure clear.
“She asked,” said Alexander, not flinching from his father’s gaze. “It’s one of our most important holy days and it wouldn’t do to keep her ignorant of it.”
“I suppose,” said Cassius.
“We can discuss this after dinner,” said Portia. She had just noticed one of the wait staff standing in the doorway. They sat in the dining hall, each of the four of them secured in their own chair back to back to back, facing a different wall to ensure that they could not accidentally glimpse one another’s faces while eating. The staff laid out dinner and then beat a hasty retreat. Once alone and safely looking away, each family member raised his or her mask high enough to dine comfortably. Portia inhaled the scent of roast duck and realized she had no eaten all day, and that she was famished.
Cassius talked a bit about his day in the Senate, and then Octavia would not stop asking questions about Hallowmas. “Mummy, why do we go unmasked on Hallowmas when to take off your mask is the greatest sin?”
“Because to go unmasked for a day is to remember why we must be masked on all other days,” said Portia. She heard Alexander mouthing the words along with her.
“Why is it such an important holy day?” asked Octavia.
“Because it’s when we conduct our most important rites and mysteries,” said Portia.
“What are the rites and mysteries?” said Octavia.
“Mostly drinking and fornicating,” said Alexander.
“Alexander!” said Cassius.
Portia heard Alexander shrug his shoulders. "That's what the help said."
"Which of them?" said Cassius. Alexander shrugged again.
"I can't remember now."
Portia frowned, and her appetite died.
That night the children went to their separate beds, and Portia shared a quiet moment with Cassius in the hall before they parted to their own rooms. He laid his brow on hers and she felt the hard line of his body through his clothes. A flicker of heat flared inside of her, but she tamped it down. The night before Hallowmas was a night for discipline and self-control. “I’ll be at the North Gate tomorrow,” Cassius said.
“And I’ll be at the Great Bridge,” she replied. If they knew where one another would be they would not end up meeting by accident. In theory, one would never recognize an unmasked loved one, but of course, she knew every single part of Cassius’ body except his face. Everyone knew horror stories about wives who accidentally recognized their husband’s birthmarks or scars during Hallowmas, after seeing their faces. How awful, she thought, to look on your husband’s mask every day after and know what the real face underneath was like.
They parted. Portia paused by Alexander’s door, wondering if he was still awake and if he had overheard them. They had stopped by his door and spoken loudly on purpose, so that he too would know to avoid the places they would be. Teenagers were not allowed to take part in the festivities, but Portia was not so naïve as to think a boy Alexander’s age wouldn't sneak out anyway. And what of Octavia, Portia wondered? How many more years until she’s out in the streets, face naked for all to see, drinking the gods' wine and inviting men (or women?) to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh in the wayside gardens?
Portia closed her door and locked it. She undressed in the dark and laid her mask on the nightstand. She ran her fingers over her exposed face, feeling the lines of her cheekbones, her nose, her brow, her lips. Her natural face was so unlike her. She lay on her thin mattress and recited orisons to herself until she fell asleep. It didn’t take long.
She woke with a feeling of unease. She reached for her mask, but no, not today, she reminded herself. Instead she sat up and ran her hands over her horribly bare face again. She listened: The house was completely silent. No children, no servants, no Cassius. She was the last one up and the last one out. Good.
Just walking down the halls unmasked made her feel ill. She was terrified at the thought of some stray, late-rising servant appearing, but there was no one. She went to the window and peeked through the curtains: There were people on the streets. Not many, as the crowds would gather in the public squares and the feast halls, but still she could see them. They were drinking and laughing and some even danced, all of them dressed in costumes and all of them, of course, unmasked. How awful people's faces are, Portia thought, how terrible the way they move. She watched as a couple of girls, barely out of their teens, stole grapes off the vines on her walls and ate them, laughing.
She wanted to lock herself in, but of course, she could not. Dressing herself (she had no clothes garish enough to constitute a costume, but had made a wreath of flowers from the garden to wear as a crown), she covered her face with a wrapped scarf so that no dawdling neighbors would see her leave the house barefaced. This was permitted (indeed, resolutely necessary,) so long as she removed it once she was away from her own home. She walked the empty streets for a few blocks.
All the shops were closed except for the taverns, but even the taverns did no real business; everything was free, paid for by the church, and in each of the ale and wine houses you could find revelers dressed as monks and friars handing out libations, the Priests of Misrule. A great many of the people Portia passed were drunk, and even those who were not seemed surreally giddy, lost in some strange other world in their minds.
She came to the bridge. It was a cool day, and bright. The public buildings were decorated with hanging vines, ripe gourds, cornstalks, and out-of-season flowers. Here on the bridge, a great wooden idol in the shape of a sacred bull, hammered together from old planks and table legs and broken carts, was the centerpiece of the festivities. Surrounded by celebratory fires, the bull was the ultimate symbol of virility, and countless flagons of sacred wine were broken over its horns, to the delight of the pious revelers.
Portia did away with her scarf, letting the harsh morning light scathe her naked cheeks. She uncoiled her hair from its braid as well, letting it hang free about her shoulders. A girl nearby, who a moment ago had been lost in divine ecstasy, gasped at the sight of Portia revealed. Indeed, her presence seemed to snap many out of their trance. Some of the bolder men made eyes at her, but she ignored them. Marital indiscretions were hardly unheard of at Hallowmas, but she wanted nothing of these half-naked people and their lurid faces. Instead she went to the idol and picked up an empty chalice, letting a monk pour the sacred wine until it sloshed over the sides. She drank as much as she could in one go and when her head spun and her knees weakened she allowed herself to fall.
To her surprise, someone caught her. Two strong hands supported her in her swoon and, half-leading and half-carrying, took her to the railing. She leaned on it, looking down at the churning blue waters. The wine of the Priests of Misrule was particularly potent this year. Her mysterious rescuer fanned her until she was recouped, then showed her that he had rescued her cup as well. She thanked him for it with a mute whisper and, slowly this time, took a draught. The cold, cold wine soothed her insides.
It was only now that she looked at the man who was with her, and when she did her breath caught in her throat. He was gorgeous! Portia had never seen such a beautiful unmasked man before. The stranger was naked to the waist, and around his head was a crown of grapevines that trailed down his body. His fingers were stained with crushed grapes, and his skin was dark, like someone who had spent long hours in the sun without covering of any kind. His hair was fair and his teeth were so white his smile almost blinded her.
"May I share this cup?" he said. Portia stammered her consent, and he took the chalice. His fingers were very hot and she spilled a few stray drops. She wanted to stick her fingers in her mouth right then, but she didn't. The strange man drank the entire cop and tossed it aside, letting it clamor on the stones of the street. Then he took both of her hands in his and held them up in a sign of thanks. Portia muttered a brief prayer along with him, but for once she was not thinking about the gods.
What am I doing, she thought as she let this stranger put his arm around her and walk with her across the span of the bridge. She could not take her eyes off of him. She should have been disgusted, repulsed by this man's shameful, unabashed physicality, but somehow this strange, nameless, divine man, was as beautiful as painted silk, even, as he was, unmasked and half-dressed. She felt a fire inside of her, a heat she thought long extinguished.
He pulled her aside, out of the thoroughfare and the mob. Her foot slipped and she let herself fall against him, running her hands down his body. She realized she was blushing, openly, nakedly blushing for all the world to see, but she didn't care. The strange man touched her cheek. "I see you're very much in the spirit of the day," he said. Portia swallowed, realizing she hadn't said anything to him yet.
"To be honest, I don't think I've ever really understood the meaning of the Hallowmas carnival until now."
"I hear that so often," said the strange man. The reply made Portia feel merely common, but there was gentleness about his voice that smoothed the rough edges. Perhaps everyone was common next to a man like this? She almost asked his name but closed her mouth at the last moment. To save herself from blurting it out she stood as tall as she could, threw her arms around the strange man's neck, and kissed him. At first it terrified her; she felt as if she were treading on a priest's robes. But the man, whoever he was, caught her up and pressed her to him, crushing her like a grape in a press. Her heart leapt up and her head swam, and when the kiss was done she felt as if she'd bathed in sacred wine. She was not, she knew, really so drunk as she felt, but there was more to this feeling than just what went into the cups.
The stranger pulled into an out-of-the-way garden at the edge of some estate, so open to the street and yet so tucked away and private that she had to guess it was designed for this very purpose. He pulled her in for another hot kiss and his strong hands ran up and down her body. She kissed the stranger back, and then she kissed his neck, and then the hard muscles and sinews of his chest, her wine-cooled lips gliding across his burning skin. And then she went lower…
Portia dropped to her knees, cushioned on a soft bed of grass and clover. The stranger wore only loose white trousers, which she pulled down over his calves and knees. The sight of his turgid, swollen prick shocked her. She was used to quiet, respectful lovemaking, in the dark, where such things remain partially hidden. To see it in broad daylight was unreal. She kissed it tentatively at first, unsure of herself, but soon she wrapped her mouth around the tip of the stranger's erection and, taking it slowly so as not to overwhelm herself, drew it in, letting her lips massage it on the way down. The stranger leaned against the garden wall, looking at her with half-lidded eyes. She went down until she choked and then eased off. The stranger brushed a strand of her hair off of her forehead. His fingers were strong but soft. She flushed all over.
Portia slid her tongue along the underside of his shaft, trailing wetness, then slid it out just far enough to tickle the head with the tip of her tongue. He seemed to enjoy that, or at least be amused by it, so she did it again, sliding her tongue around the ridge and teasing the spot behind it. His flesh tasted divine, a sweet and holy sensation that she could not place. She lapped at him, eager for more of it, and she opened her mouth wider, pushing him to the entrance of her throat, even allowing his fingers to fold themselves in her hair and push down, feeding himself to her. She moaned, sending the vibrations up and down him. Her mouth watered. She tried to pull even more of the stranger in, but there was nothing more. She had the entirety of him now.
She heard, for a moment, footsteps on the stones behind her, and surprised voices, and even laughter, and opening her eyes for a moment she saw the stranger smile and wink, not at her but evidently at someone behind her. They were being watched. Perhaps there was even a crowd? She didn't care. She would not be interrupted. She slid her hands up his taut thighs and around back, gripping his hips and all but forcing him, with as much power as her tiny body could summon, to go faster as he rocked back and forth, in and out of her gaping mouth.
His climax took her by surprise. There was no indication, no verbalization, no change in his body language or breathing. All of a sudden there was a sensation of pressure being released and something wet and thick spreading across her tongue, filling her mouth. Portia's eyes snapped open, shocked, and for a second she had the urge to expel him, but she came to her senses and accepted it. The hot, wet flow spilled inside of her and she observed the gulping motion of her throat with a combination of fascination and horror. She imagined the stranger's seed mixing with the holy wine in her stomach. Is this the largesse of the gods too, she thought? And then she had to pull away because she was laughing, taken with a fit of merry madness.
The stranger pulled her up by her wrist, so fast that she nearly swooned again. She was gaping, red-faced, breathless. The stranger petted her like a kitten. "I hope you haven't worn yourself out already?" he said, "Come." He started to drag her along. She could barely keep one foot in front of the other. "There are people you should meet."
He pulled into a nearby prayer house, although by the sounds of things there was anything but prayer going on today. The statues and holy icons all had sheets and towels flung over their heads to symbolize gods' blindness to humanity's actions today, and there were many half-empty casks of wine scattered about, and in the dark corners of the room there were many undressed people doing very many things that made Portia's insides quiver even as her head throbbed. The stranger presented her hand, very cordially, to a woman who was there, standing apart from the others, observing. This woman was pale but vibrant, with golden hair and long, exquisitely formed limbs. Her lips were such a deep red that they were almost purple, like the grapes that make the sacred wine.
"I'd like you to meet my wife," said the stranger.
Portia's mouth fell open. "But you can't be here! Unmasked…you've seen each other!"
"So?" said the woman, still holding Portia's hand.
"It's a sin. It's monstrous!" Portia almost babbling now.
"According to whom?" said the stranger. Both of them towering over Portia. "This is our house. We will decide what is sacred and what is profane. Who will tell us that it's wrong? You?"
"I—I—" said Portia. She felt confused, her head throbbing.
"There, there," said the woman. They took her to a pew and sat her down. The woman began undressing Portia, who did not object. The feeling of her clothes gliding across her bare flesh was very gratifying. Her half-focused eyes fixated on three people in the corner who were very, very busy at something. Suddenly her vision was obscured by the stranger's wife, who leaned over Portia and kissed her with an open mouth. It was a fleeting thing, but Portia raised her head to chase after the woman's retreating lips. The stranger swooped in and caught Portia's face in one hand, turning it toward him and giving her a matching kiss.
"I sense that you're feeling in the spirit of the season," said the stranger's wife. Portia nodded, since speaking was too difficult in her state. She was aware of the stranger's hands on her hips, guiding her into a dark corner of the room, and of the strange woman walking in front of her, beckoning her along. Suddenly Portia was in the midst of a mass of people, half-glimpsed in the dark, a mass of writhing naked bodies and twining limbs. The stranger gave her a little push and almost sent her barreling into the midst of them, but someone (Portia had no idea who?) caught her and helped ease her down.
Portia lay on the cool floor tiles. A sea of flesh moved around her. She discovered another body pressed against hers, some anonymous woman lost in the drunken ecstasy of the moment, and when they came together (so soft, thought Portia) their lips joined in a long kiss. The nameless woman's hands moved across Portia, tracing the outline of her hips and her thighs, and Portia raked her fingers up the other woman's back, outlining in the curve of her spine. How remarkable, she thought, that this woman should be composed of all the same parts as I have, and yet we should look nothing alike. She set about testing the theory, examining, with her hot lips and soft hands, the various delicate parts of her unseen partner, tasting the slope of her neck and the angle of her shoulders, feeling the firmness and the ripeness of her breasts, testing the degree of her backside and the plane of her thighs. Portia anatomized the other woman one inch at a time, oblivious to their surroundings.
Suddenly hands tugged at Portia's hair, and she was turned to greet another kissing mouth, another pair of exploring hands. A woman again, by the feel of her. Portia accepted the attention without complaint. Then she was pulled in a different direction and the hard, lean body of a man lay against her, his kisses hard and insistent. Someone else was behind her now and she felt the distinct throb of an erection against her backside. Unseen hands pulled her hair, arching her neck and back, pressing her breasts forward into the waiting molestation of the man in front of her. One of the women insinuated herself into the group, kissing her way up the exposed flank of Portia's thigh as she was pressed between the two men. None of these strangers, though, was the golden-haired couple who had brought Portia here. This she knew, because now and then she caught sight of them elsewhere in the shadows, always watching her, sometimes together and sometimes individually. But eventually she was buried underneath the huddle of competing bodies and lost sight of them entirely.
There was no telling how long this went on before the others dropped away, exhausted, bored, drunk. By that time Portia was wrung-out and spent, but something about the burning ache of the wine she'd consumed wouldn't let her rest. People slept in two and threes on the floor around her and she picked her way between them. Finding one man still alert and at attention, she went to all fours in front of him and sucked his prick in the dark until he contributed to the growing communion in her body, and then he too fell away, uselessly slumbering. Portia groped her way across the floor, blind and helpless, until familiar hands found her. Her strange host and his equally strange wife, still here or perhaps returned from an absence, had come to retrieve her. They stood her up, cleaned her off as best they could, covered her with some bare semblance of modesty, and took her from the house.
"Have you been enjoying your rites today?" said the strange man.
"Mmm, yes…" Portia said.
"We have more for you," said the strange woman, as they bore her along between them. More, thought Portia? What else could there possibly be? The sun was getting low. Portia found her feet and began to walk of her own accord, staying between the couple, comfortable in their presence now, indeed, thirsty for it. She slipped an arm around each of their waists and accepted theirs in return. She became fascinated by the movement of their legs, particularly the way their ankles flexed. For some time she was so distracted by this that she didn't pay any attention to where they were going. Only when she saw the cathedral spires did her feet drag. "We're going there?" she said.
"Where else on this most sacred day?" said the woman.
"It's forbidden," said Portia.
"You say that so often," said the stranger. They approached the gilded gates.
"We can't get in," Portia insisted. "There's no one there." But no sooner did she say it than the gates creaked open. The stranger and his wife entered, greeted formally by whoever was doing the admitting. When Portia, after a moment's hesitation, followed, she was stunned to see Father Marlowe. Yes, Father Marlowe, in his robes and wearing his mask, against all custom and holy law, wearing a mask on Hallowmas. Portia gasped, as did he when he saw her.
"Portia!" he said. "But what are you doing here child? No, not you, not you of all—"
"I followed them," said Portia. "They insisted that—wait, how did you know me? How do you know my face?"
Father Marlowe seemed about to answer but the stranger gave him a dark look, and he bowed his head. "Well," he muttered, "you are here. There is nothing to be done about it now. Come along."
He took them into the cathedral. Portia was at a loss to keep up, and she had no idea what was going on. It wasn't just the wine now. In fact she felt almost completely sober again. The high arches of the cathedral, always so comforting to her, seemed sinister now. She tried to stay close to Father Marlowe, although in truth his presence was disturbing. How could a priest of all people dare to wear his mask today? And yet the strange couple did not seem bothered by it. Portia began to feel ill. Who were these people? How could they so casually stomach such sins? Even on Hallowmas there were lines that should never be crossed. But Father Marlowe made a sign for silence, and the eyes behind his mask seemed desperate and pleading.
To Portia's surprise, the sanctuary was full of lights and people. No, she realized, not people at all, but merely a line of dressing dummies wearing priest's robes and sacred golden masks in the likeness of bulls, a convocation of masks without faces behind them. Ceremonial torches burned on all sides and the smell of incense filled the air. What in the world was going on? Up to the altar they all went, but here Father Marlowe warned her back and made suppliant gestures to the couple.
"We greet you today, most holy and divine of personages," said Father Marlowe. "And we greet the witness you've brought." Portia started a little when she realized he was talking about her. "In your name, in your honor, shall we initiate the sacrifice?"
The stranger was about to speak but his wife cut him off: "Let her do it," she said. Again, Portia knew they were talking about her, and a hard feeling formed in the pit of her stomach, though she could not imagine what "it" could be. Father Marlowe paused for only a fraction of a second.
"Of course, my lady," he said.
He went to Portia. She stood face to face with the priest, and his eyes looked sad. Portia had no idea what was expected of her. He patted her hand once, reassuring her, and then he turned away and, to her horror, removed his mask, dropping it. Then he shed his robe as well, and for a moment Portia felt as if she were going blind, or perhaps that the world was going out of focus, and when the moment passed Father Marlowe was gone and where he had been, and indeed, still standing over the remains of his robes and mask, was a sacred white bull, lowing and snorting. It was huge and vibrant and alive. Sweat dappled its flanks in the torchlight, and when it turned to her its breath warmed her skin. Is it real, Portia thought, half wanting to touch it but half afraid to as well.
The stranger and his wife came to her, he guiding her forward and she placing a dagger in Portia's hand. The bull did not seem afraid. Indeed, it took a few steps toward her, a friendly gesture. Only when the act was already done did Portia realized that, in one swift motion, she had cut the bull's throat! Her hands had moved entirely of their own accord. She gasped and dropped the knife, but though a red stain spread across the great bull's white hide and its blood flowed over the tiled floor the animal did not cry out or stagger or fall. It remained calm, peaceful, letting its blood flow in streams, making no sign of pain. The stranger caught some of the blood in a sacred chalice. Portia shook her head. "What's going on?" she said, but the stranger hushed her.
Minutes passed and the stream of blood diminished to a dribble, but somehow the bull still lived. It shook its ears and flicked its tail, and that was all. The stranger put one bronzed hand on the bull's flank and his wife touched it on the forehead, and then the huge animal turned and trotted away, heading toward the altar, and then the world went out of focus again and the beast was gone, vanished, and if not for the blood on the floor Portia would not have believed it had been there in the first place. "What…what was that?" she said.
"A farewell to the flesh," said the stranger. "Now Hallowmas is done: The most sacred rite has been observed, and you are our witness."
"Not yet," said the woman. She took the blood-filled chalice and, from the altar, retrieved a flagon of wine, which she mixed with the blood in the cup. Then she presented the cup to Portia. "Drink." It was not a request. Portia gagged, shaking her head, but the woman pushed the cup forward. "Drink!" she said again. "It's important. It's the covenant."
"But why?" said Portia. "What does it mean? What's going on here? Who are you?"
"Don't you know?" said the stranger. "Isn't it obvious who we are? Haven't you said your prayers to us every day? And we heard them. Now, the covenant."
Portia began to cry. The woman pushed the cup to her lips, almost choking her, and she drank. It tasted bitter and it burned her throat, but she drank. The alcoholic haze overtook her again and she did not resist as the stranger carried her to the altar, laying her naked across it. The two stood over her, the man on one side, the woman on the other, hands joined. Portia saw the masks of the gods on the wall. Worse, she knew that they saw her. She wanted to cry out but no words came.
"Accept us back into the world now," said one of them (either the man or his wife, she could not tell which). "Accept us into your hearts, your minds, and your bodies."
Portia was burning up inside; her limbs were on fire.
"Accept us," said the man, kissing her.
"Accept us," repeated the woman, kissing her again. Portia's lips burned with divine fire. Her body was floating away, or perhaps was being consumed. The stranger, she realized, was on top of her now, taking her across the altar, right there in front of the eyes of the gods, and his wife was leaning over, presenting her breasts to Portia's mouth, and Portia's skin burned, and her body became lighter and lighter, until it seemed she was not there at all. In the midst of her delirium, she thought she saw the images of the gods remove their masks. She thought she saw the naked faces of the gods. And—how horrifying to realize!—she saw that the gods looked just like anyone else.
She couldn't bear it. So instead, she slept.
She woke the next day in her own home again. She did not remember returning. She did not remember anything after that moment on the altar. And how much of what happened before that was memory and how much simply a mad dream? She did not know. She thought she might never know.
She was sore all over and her hands were still stained with wine. Wine, and perhaps something else. She tried to wipe them on her bedclothes before realizing what she was doing. She dressed herself with aching limbs, pausing only briefly before putting her mask on. It settled against her face, and when she opened her eyes everything about the world seemed to make sense again. Yes, everything was all right.
She went to the east sitting room, where the family was already awake and waiting for her. Cassius embraced her, setting his brow against hers, while Octavia chattered with bright greetings and Alexander, at his books as always, gave her a nod. It was a beautiful day outside, and the entire city was rising to greet the open air and the bright sun. With Hallowmas come and gone they had their entire lives to get back to.
"Good morning, Mummy," said Octavia.
"Good morning, Mother," said Alexander.
"Good morning, darlings," said Portia. She frowned. Was there something wrong with her voice? It seemed to echo inside her mask. But no one else noticed. Cassius sat with her on a couch, talking about dinner with the count that evening. Portia found herself staring at Cassius' bare hands, comparing them to those of the stranger, and even to those of the stranger's wife.
She was seized with a kind of spasm, almost a seizure, at the memory of that bizarre, blasphemous couple. She wondered who they were, where they were today, what they were doing, and the thought set a ringing in her mind, as if the bells of every church had split. Cassius just kept talking: "Did you know," he said, "Father Marlowe died yesterday?"
"He did?" said Alexander.
"Oh yes. In his sleep, in the sanctuary, apparently. They found him this morning. Quite a thing, dying on a holy day. Seems appropriate. I wonder how we'll ever replace him? Anybody who came along would think he had always—"
Octavia noticed first; her screams alerted the others. They all started, then looked at Portia, and then cried out as well. Cassius tried to look away, but it was too late. Portia had taken her mask off. Right there, in front of everyone, she took it off and broke it into pieces, and now the pieces were sifting through her fingers, falling away, going to dust, and then even the dust was gone.
Octavia would not stop screaming. Eventually she took a needle from her mother's sewing basket and, in a fit, tried to blind herself, but Alexander stopped her. Not that it mattered hat they had seen could not be unseen. Portia looked at her husband and children with her naked face for the first time. "Accept us," she remembered the strangers saying the previous night. "Accept us," they'd said, again and again.
Cassius took her by her shoulders, shaking her, trying to get her to speak, trying to reason with her. Alexander shielded Octavia's eyes, hugging her, trying to comfort her. Portia said nothing. Minutes passed before Cassius could get her to say anything, and when she did all she said was: "Accept us. Accept us." He stared, helpless, horrified, not understanding. But Portia could not explain.
When she opened her eyes she did not see her family anymore. Without her mask on, she saw the faces of gods. And the gods saw her. And it was good.