I never would have taken the summer job doing all the little things, like supplying props, designing the signs, making the masks, and ushering, for the stage play of The King In Yellow if I’d known the rumors of the effects of reading the second act. Not that I believed in the supernatural, but I would have thought few would attend, for fear of being taken down into the depths of psychosis after their last sane intermission of their lives. And I would have assumed the reverse placebo effect would make all involved with the production act out every shadowy wildness in their psyches they didn’t want to take responsibility for.
But I’m a guy who keeps commitments. And I’d signed on to rent a golden-painted attic with a slanted roof and a tiny closet along the floor, which was two blocks from the theater for three months. It took the last of my money, and I had a drawing habit to support, so I had no choice. I decided to embrace the adventure with a sense of glee. It would be macabre fun to watch the world around me go mad. I’d draw the distraught actors, the intrepid director, the fainted audience, and sell the art around Paris to the locals and tourists, as the event would no doubt garner some voyeuristic fame.
The first day at the theater, I enjoyed the blank canvas feeling, as I already was getting a glint of ideas for colorful props. I stood visualizing the masked ball in the alien city, Carcosa. I was picturing how the throne might look with the spotlight on it, and the right kind of scepter for it, when the director, Moriarity, startled me by coming up behind me and putting his hand on my shoulder. Lucky my reflexes weren’t on espresso.
“You ready to read the script?”
“Sure. The scene descriptions were intriguing, black stars hanging down and all, so I’m looking forward to it.”
I wasn’t. I had no plans to read it. Just in case. It would be possible without that step, I knew, as long as I steered conversations just the right way to get the information I needed to secure the props, mold the masks.
He gave me the slender manuscript, inside an amazing old crimson tooled leather folder, and said: “First, start looking for two round bulbs a foot long to hang down, representing twin suns over the lake. And we can get you started on the masks now. Let me show you where to pour the molds.”
By the trough was a group of people standing, with their hair pulled back tightly and in caps, wearing protective clothing over their shirts. “The mixture directions are here. The ingredients have to be precise, and stirred until the exact moment. No one but you is to see this.” He handed me the recipe consisting of sigils, times, and esoteric directions such as – “stir backwards while thinking of the supplantation of a strange moon with a dark star.”
He said: “They know what to do after that. Just let them do their thing. I mean it.”
I did as it said, combining material that was only labeled with sigils, creating the white, veiny substance that swirled in the trough. It was fun to make the colorful designs. Eventually it was a plastic consistency and homogenous color. I waited until the exact timing indicated and said: “Go!” as instructed.
The seven people suddenly bent at the waist with great speed and economy of motion, their faces plunging into the mold. They remained there, and I started to worry they were no longer alive, but hadn’t been able to pull out. No one was struggling. I anxiously jittered around, taking big breaths to start to say something, then exhaling, staring at their faces, searching for indications of suffocation. Seconds take so long when you’re in suspense. So do minutes.
I could feel my chest starting to tighten and my muscles trying to run for help. “Moriarity! I think something’s wrong! Should I pull them out!”
“They’re specially trained. It’s fine. The special mask material takes time to set. Don’t ruin it.”
I didn’t know even swimmers could hold their breath that long. I watched Moriarity for signs of psychopathy, but remembered – there are none. That’s how they get away with their vile schemes. Then, Pow! They raised up, their faces showing no traces of material stuck to them, the molds perfectly smooth and exact. When they inhaled deeply all at once, I felt my soul nearly sucked from within. When they smiled, my mirror neurons told me to smile back, but inside I screamed.
Moriarity came by, taking hardly a moment out of talking to a man who seemed like perhaps the Theater Manager, to take the instructions from me and hand me a new set of them for filling the mold with the mask material. This one was equally cryptic, with sigils once again, which corresponded with the containers farther down the long table. Without looking at them, he dismissed the people who had lent their features to the mold. I couldn’t help staring at them.
I felt I’d come to know them, to care if they lived or died so strongly, I wanted to follow them. I didn’t want them to just go home and I’d never see them again. I wondered what other roles they were playing in the production. My eyes almost went in seven directions as I kept track of them as they scattered in the crowded building, taking up new projects, thank goodness, rather than putting on coats and walking out the door.
I felt the smoothness of the molds, dipping my fingers into the imprints of their faces, the black man’s wide nose, the young man’s pimples, the old woman’s complex jowls. The texture was compelling, as I slid my finger over it, and over it again, as if learning their faces from the inside out, reading their personalities in Braille. I could tell what it felt like to look out through those eyes, to inhabit those bone structures. When no one was looking, I quickly bent down to place my face in an elderly man’s imprint, and breathed in that space, getting an even stronger sensation of what being him would be like. I nearly cried, remembering his divorce, how he wanted a horse so much he worked himself too hard in high school to get the straight A’s required to be given one. I too fell in love with the woman he hankered over. When I raised my face up and looked around sheepishly, I was startled to recognize her in that very building.
She was painting the stage set, so I was looking forward to collaborating with her with prop ideas. She was beyond beautiful. Eerie how perfect she was. I could see how he wanted her for his own, and of course, so did I. It was the same thing. I hoped she’d understand that.
I could tell the actors would get it. They’d been preparing all this time, ready to start practicing on stage, and their eyes. Their eyes glistened. Their skin gleamed. I could just tell they heard mistaken melodies, they searched inside their skin, they rose like clouds to speak their lines, they became nonlinear, they flew at night in dreams of stages with no ceilings but black stars.
I couldn’t wait to read the script. I ran to the stairwell and pulled mine out and started scanning it as fast as I could. The masks were waiting. But there was time. Plenty, and endless time. No time. No time at all.
I felt as if I were reading it through holes in a mask, eyes set in a face not my own. It was reading me. I was what was in the pages. I was In Yellow.
I scraped my arm against the edge of the stairs, trying to remove skin. I scratched my hands virulently as I read. I wanted less, less of me. I wanted only the mask-like perfection. Smoothness. Words, flowing muscular prose, visceral plots, palpable action, tangible sentence structures that moved inside me, acting out the storylines from within me, moving me like an internal puppet master. I acted out the scenes I read, leaping about on the stairway.
But before I got to Act II, Moriarity called me back to finish the masks. “There’s time for that later,” he said. “Finish the pale masks for now, so we can move the table out of the way once they dry. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? You can see now why I wanted to do a performance of it. The first one ever done.”
“And I hope it’s not the last.”
I stole brief looks at Act II as I stirred the mask materials to slide into the mold. It was a complex process to first pour the materials to fill in the mold entirely, remove it, and then, shrink it slightly. Then, I was to pour the material in again, and then use the shrunken version to place inside the mold to shape the mask’s internal structure so it was thin, and would fit over a face nicely. I had never heard of such a method, and was not allowed to reveal the exact method of shrinkage. I had to sign off on confidentiality on the whole mask-making alchemy altogether. I could see why Moriarity wasn’t worried people on the set would figure it out. There was no way to tell what I was doing, even if anyone had thought to remotely care.
Breathing in the steam from the inner molds as they shrank was divine. I understood what it was like to be more than one person at once. To have conflicting perspectives which were all right. To have reasons for believing all the different things that branched back through childhood, and genetics.
Reading quick bits of Act II while under the influence of the people who had given their selves to the masks — I went sane eight times over.
I yelled out in overtones, similar to what Tibetans practice in their temples, to create chords with their own vocal cords. “Finally!” I had gotten it. I’d learned the true nature of reality that we had all been in denial of all this time. The veil of illusion had been torn from across my visual field. Me as me, me as them, me as everyone. We were all in it together on this Earth, all suffering under the insanity of naivete.
We have all, all of us on Earth been wearing masks all along. All but The King In Yellow. He has nothing between himself and raw truth. Poor tattered royalty, bowed under the weight of such knowledge. I wiped away tears of compassion for him, and for all who have read the play and learned just a fraction of what he could tell.
Moriarity smiled at me, and I couldn’t tell, but he might even have winked. He approached me, his eyes glinting beside the wrinkles. “I picked you very carefully, my boy, to have the most power of anyone here. To make the masks, to breathe in the fumes, the faces, the lives. The alchemist always knows more than other people can bear. Just like The King. Just like Hermes. Like the leader of a lodge. Yet now, you know it from all those points of view at once. Perhaps you might want to lie down. To take a rest in order to process. But first, finish the masks, not much left, and clear off the table. Then, I’ll show you a special nook I’ve prepared for you, and you alone.”
“How did you pick me? I’m just a regular guy.”
“I followed the Sign. I couldn’t have known, on my own. The King knows our hearts. He seeks out his own.”
“The King knows I exist?” I was honored. I put my hand over my heart. I slowed my breath the best I could.
I tried on the masks once I was done. That gave me the reason and opportunity to cry unseen. The tears mixed with the surface of the mask in a way I didn’t know possible. I thought it was invulnerable but simple salt water could for some alchemical reason transform it. The tears turned into jewels, as in a crown. Luckily, they wouldn’t mar the performance, as only the performers would see them. I hoped they wouldn’t be tempted to steal them. The tear gems reminded me of opals. I knew I would have brilliant dreams that night, and grew weary of spending the day among mortal laws and mundane wood and steel. I wanted to be whisked away into alien castles faster than the set could be built. I was fortunate that Moriarity had anticipated my mood.
After I cleaned off the table, he escorted me to the special place. I nodded and bowed with great respect for all the people involved who had read the script. They were my people. People who knew. I had no patience for the outside world any more. I was ready for the revolution that would follow the shows. I hoped the play would run endlessly, that new people would take over as these died, that it would transform our planet into something akin to truth crystallized, and shining, a beacon lit up by the sun to let all other planetary denizens understand.
“Here. Slide in there,” he said. The slanted small room reminded me of my attic sleeping quarters. But it was even tinier. Large enough, at least, for a little door that led to a simple bathroom. The niche was covered with mirrors, which reflected each other. There were eight of me, ostensibly – the Hermetic orb of myself and Seven Stars – making eight repeated infinitely as the reflections created a tunnel that seemed to reach forever into space, made out of myself. Seven of the reflections looked unlike me, or at least, felt different from me. Perfect for Dark Star mythology.
Each one was blended with the personality of one of the people who had made imprints for the molds.
“Here. You should have the chance to try the masks on, after going through so much trouble to make them. I know how much it involves. It’s much more than simple alchemy. It’s a new life. New lives.” He reached into his bag for he masks.
Somehow it seemed as if he put them all one my face, all at once, and separately, one to a face. The mirrors told me that. I looked out from each one at its own designated mirror. They overlapped and blended together in the tunnel that extended so far I couldn’t tell if it went into the past or the future, or if there were a difference.
“Now, dream,” he said. I wondered why the King had given him the Sign, had led him to me. What function did this have, lying in the mirror-niche? It couldn’t be personal. It had to play a role in the performance. Was I providing its secret lighting? Like the hidden gems in the masks. The sparkling faceted silvery brightness of multi-truth.
I didn’t notice when he left my presence. I had closed my eyes, but was still seeing the tunnel of mirrors. It grew brighter as if a lightning-bliss train with lights on were barreling toward me, through my spine, out beyond the top of my head, and continuing going in a direction I wasn’t used to thinking in. Not exactly the future. Not exactly anything.
So. The King had chosen me to take a ride.
This was much better than sleep. That time in which we stop pretending. Dreamless delta brain-waves, the best time we could be paying attention. But no one teaches us how. The King In Yellow and the masks had taught me. I should stop the story here, because that is how to get on the train. Get off the story. Stop being ignorant and hiding in black forgetting. Erasing that part of our time on Earth as if it had no value to our conscious state. As if the conscious state were better and it was dismissed, something we’d rather not do if we could, because it’s boring.
But it’s life. It’s our only life.
The rest of this is like a dream, like a play. And most of what’s inside our minds is plays never acted out, like a private script. Fears and fantasies, memories, plans, trying out different scenarios in our head to decide what to do next. To get ahead. As if there were some good reason for humans to exist. As if going forward with our existence had some value to anything in the world. Yes, a few species of animals and plants have come into existence and morphed into favored positions, because of humans. But at what cost to the natural order of harmony? We destroy two hundred species a day. Soon, the oil will all be pulled from the ground and the oceans will be dead and everything covered with a sheen of self-replicating nanobots. Yet we act like having babies is sweet. Having babies is not sweet. It is an abomination.
What if those private scripts inside our head moment to moment of ever day were read, were acted out, became real all around us, reflections bounced of the conflicting possibilities we review before choosing a course of action? Sometimes we review these for decades and never take action on them at all. We imagine revenge, adultery, incest, suicide, pranks, self-aggrandizement. We throw away trash and use up resources made into toys for us across the world by dying slaves. They’re shipped using petroleum the covert wars are fought for by CounterIntelligence agents. They create underhanded coups to bring their guys into power through insurrection. When we invade the weakened countries, we bring drugs back along with the oil and corpses.
We shelve those things, like the play, The King In Yellow, as something to forever remain unseen. Unshared. When we experience them until their final act’s denouement, and when others experience our hiddeness, wear our faces, our masks, we burst forth into the dreamless part of our lives.
I understood. Audience members were to each watch the play and see their own internal scripts acted out. The script would have that supernatural effect on them because of me. Lying there, in that niche. I spun the action into gold so bright, one had to close the eyes to see.
And oh, the dreams that get lit up first, before the golden double suns are visible. One sun below the feet. The other above the head. Polarity is turned positive/positive instead of positive/negative. The feminine, receptive moon is taken out of the alchemical equation. In Carcosa, there are not negative and positive ions, no sodium/potassium movements pumping in and out across cell membranes. There is no hidden side, no passive, so empty. There is only manifest, all the thoughts played out on the stage of life. Some call it La Morte.
Some say sacrifice is the only way. Some say blood feeds the suns. No one ever needed to make the one sun rise. It was always the second sun the Mayans and the other superstition-kings were making rise with their sacrificial alchemy. People were not stupid. If they were smart, they were taken into the secret societies and told about the second sun. The one at the feet. Esoterica keeps that hidden in arcana, in drawings and advanced rituals. The moon is not as powerful as the sun. It does not balance it out. Only another sun balances so much we become something else. Something no long a subject, ruled over, but inherently divine, and everywhere.
When we reach the land of the two suns, we are The King In Yellow. The rise of the King of the Dark Sun. Ascending to our place safe within the alien magnetosphere of the Dark Star, the brown dwarf orbiting the regular Sun elliptically.
I was startled by aggressive knocking outside my niche, and my heart sped up, making me forget the Dual Suns. When I sat up, the mask on my face fell off and broke, making a sound like a crystal waterfall crashing. I tried to grab it, breaking the another mask in the process, ending up with nothing but a cut thumb, bleeding as I tried unsuccessfully to open the tiny door. I was trapped.
They broke the lock, and I leaped back, while crouching, as the door flew open toward me.
Gendarmes! Two of them.
I wanted to cover my head to protect myself, but instead raised my hands. They laughed and said they were only rescuing me. They said they’d been informed Moriarity had illegal plans to keep me in there, passing food and water to me, until the play was over.
Well, what was wrong with that? If that’s what needed to happen, it must happen. I made them momentarily regret not having me put my hands up. I reached into my pocket for my mace I always kept there, and sprayed them in the face. I grabbed a gun from one of their holsters’. Without thinking, on impulse, I bashed them each unsuspecting man in the face, killing them both.
Shaking with adrenalin, I lifted each of them and hid them in the niche, as I had no intention of being arrested. One was black, and the other young and slender. I went to the bathroom, which was conveniently down the hall, and brought out all the paper towels, wetting a few of them for the final swipe, wiped up the blood, and returned. I tore the bloody towels into strips and flushed them. I did the same with my clothes and washed up, only having to rush to hide once when someone came in to use the loo. Luckily the red had not gone through to my underwear or undershirt or gotten on my shoes. I passed one person on the way back, and did my best to look like an actor taking a break in the middle of getting fitted for a costume.
Their superiors would eventually wonder what happened to them, and that would bring them right to the niche. I wanted to hide in there, in the little space left between the military policemen. Nothing else seemed to be disturbed. I peeked in the rooms along the hall and found a costume room. I found a reasonable looking outfit, and went out among among the folks casually. I sought Moriarity. I hoped like hell he was still a free man.
It struck me that the superiors coming out might consider him the main suspect. I had to warn him. I knew he’d be proud of me for doing what it took to make the play go on. We’d figure it out together. We had to figure out the informant.
When I found him and pulled him away from the set designer, I whispered what happened. Who would have reported him? Why didn’t The King protect us?
“You did what?” he exclaimed, an admirable skill to do and whisper at the same time.
We tried to track down the culprit by perusing the crowd for looks of guilt, but he said he had told no one. No one at all.
He grabbed a box of thick trash bags, gloves, paper towels, and a cart, as we were wandering around the theater, and when no one was looking, we dashed to the niche, took the men out, and disposed of them in the giant container out back. No one would think to look there if there weren’t reported missing on the job, but how could be possibly pull that off? I’d never murdered anyone other than in my dreams.
It was the second Sun embodiment. The manifestation of my fantasies. I was ascending into my Yellowhood, slowly. It was trial by fire.
Then, I saw it. The expression on the face of the Japanese elderly man who had lent his imprint to a mask. It was profound. We looked at each other, and Moriarity watched us. When I told Moriarity that was one of the mask people (he couldn’t possibly remember the faces of all the incidental people in the theater on the first day) it became clear to all of us what had happened. Not only had I taken on the understanding of his personality when making the masks, he had taken on awareness of mine.
Which aspect of me did he inherit as his passion? What about the others? We didn’t interrupt him in his duties on the stage, but moved on through the crowd. I found all but two of the mask people – a black man and a very young man.
No! I couldn’t believe it. My mind had played tricks on me. Seeing those two in their uniforms, I’d panicked. I hadn’t realized their somewhat generic faces were the same ones, under those intimidating hats, and quickly – blood, that I’d been inhabiting. They’d been dressed as gendarmes. They were the men I’d killed!
I felt many things, one of which was relief. They had no superiors –unless they were working under cover. If they were, maybe that would explain how they found out about Moriarity’s plans. Snooping around, learning all the details.
We put on disposable outer garments from the costume room, grabbed more trash bags, and went back out to the trash container, jumping inside. We ripped the bags apart and checked in their pockets. The civilian IDs said they were who they said they were. No badges. The guns weren’t loaded. And under the blood, was pancake make-up to change their features. The young guy had covered his pimples and painted on a dark unibrow. The black guy had used putty to make his nose bulbous.
Moriarity’s eyes went wild, as he sat surrounded by colorful detritus. He said: “They must have taken some costumes and put them on to play the roles. But why? How would they know you were there, and why would they care? Why would they feel it would be necessary to pretend to be something they were not?”
We bagged them up again, wiped ourselves down, threw our outer clothes in the trash, bagged our gloves and stuck them in the bottom of the container, before climbing out.
“Maybe they didn’t want us to recognize them, Sir. Not wanting to get in trouble, and all.”
“And how would they find out the secrets? Know where you were?”
It dawned on me that they’d been in there with me, in a way. The Seven Stars of myself, the personalities I’d inherited awareness of with the mask alchemy. “I think I know. Part of them was in the niche with me. They saw what I saw. Maybe the got concerned and wanted to save me. Or stop the show, once they realized the intensity of the revelations.”
“Or maybe they wanted to rescue that part of themselves. Not have that vision going on in their heads for three months.”
They weren’t well off or they wouldn’t have taken that job. Most likely, the law wouldn’t trouble itself too much over their deaths. No one could trace it to me. I’d wiped my prints from the gun. No one could possibly imagine that motive.
We just had to figure out what to do with the other mask-people so we could continue on with the show. As I pondered it, they didn’t seem likely to have the personality types to try to disrupt the show. The two masks I’d broken were the black man and the young man. I suspected if any of the others were in danger of stopping the show, I’d break their masks too, and everything would work out without my having to even think about it.
“What kind of food do you prefer I bring you, in your niche?” Moriarity asked.
“Cheese,” I replied. And I set my mouth for some months in cramped quarters rewarded by Brie and Camembert.
Tantra Bensko teaches fiction writing through UCLA X Writing Program, Writers College, and her academy. Her newest book: a Neo-Noir Slipstream novella from ELJ. Her fiction appears in magazines/anthologies like Women Writing the Weird I and II, Strange Little Girls, Triangulation: Parch, Zymbol, Holdfast, Surreal South.