Masquerade Season

By Pemi Aguda

Pauly is a good son. When he brings home three beautiful Masquerades, he’s expecting that his mother will be proud of him. But when his mother begins asking favors of his Masquerades, he realizes that being a good son sometimes means disobeying.

Pauly should stick to the major roads when walking home from his cousins’ house. That’s what his mother warns, abstractly, routinely, every morning of this summer holiday when she drops him off. He always nods yes, but in this one thing, he is a disobedient son. He’s tried to take the major roads home, but they are so noisy with the grumbling trucks and the plaintive honks from all the cars competing to get ahead. Pauly knows more scenic routes home, less noisy paths that wind between large houses they’ll never afford and parks his mother has no time to take him to. And when Pauly doesn’t want to take this leisurely walk home, there is a shortcut. If he dips behind the mosque down the street from his cousins’ house, scurries across the gutter bridge made of two wooden planks, slashes through some distance of overgrown bush, then hops over the abandoned rusty back gate of Alele Estate, he will burst out two streets away from home. The security guards at Alele’s main gate never question his passage; they wave at his sweaty forehead and smile at the grass stains he’s accumulated on the shorts his mother makes for him.

Pauly is trying to get home quickly today. He stayed too long, playing ball with his cousins, Ekene and John, in their huge backyard bordered by coconut trees. Behind the mosque, he startles a man at his prayers. The man stills, following Pauly’s path through the backyard as his head hovers inches above the mat. Pauly whispers an apology, not slowing down. He doesn’t doubt that the rotting planks will hold his weight, and across the makeshift bridge he goes. But today, a few steps into the bush, he stalls, almost tripping, because here are three masquerades swaying in front of him, blocking his path. Pauly is not aware of any masquerade festivals at this time of the year; he takes a small step back, contemplating the out-of-context figures.

“Excuse me, please,” he says, because his mother has taught him to be polite.

The masquerades don’t respond. They stand there, moving left to right, then left, like backup singers at church. Pauly has to tilt his head all the way back to see the tops of their heads. The first masquerade is the tallest, even taller than his science teacher, who is a very tall 6’4” – —a detail the man crows at his short students. The tall masquerade has a body of long raffia threads layered over each other—like someone has stacked fifty-six brooms and topped them all with a brown cowboy hat, the kind Woody in Toy Story wears. It has no face. The second masquerade is just a little taller than Pauly’s mother. It is draped in rich aso-oke, the bloodiest of reds. Pauly gawks at the twinkling beads sewn into the cloth, dangling and scattering light, but his attention cannot stay long away from its square silver face with twin black elliptical slits above three gashes of tribal marks on each cheek. Though the head of the third masquerade is a solid dark wood that takes up half its body length (with a chiseled triangle nose, engraved circles for eyes, carved zigzags for teeth), there is an explosion of colorful feathers around it. The feathers are blue and purple and red and yellow and pink and they are long and different, as if all the birds of the world have donated feathers for this purpose. Its skirt is made of several panels of cloth, each with an elaborate embroidered pattern.

When they keep shifting with the wind, not responding, Pauly moves to go around them. They don’t stop him. How strange, he thinks, and keeps running; but isn’t that a rustling following him? Pauly swings around and the masquerades halt, only a few steps behind.

“Why are you following me?” Pauly asks.

It is the feathered masquerade that speaks; the voice is a whispery, susurrating sound, as if the feathers themselves are speaking. The masquerade says, “Because we are your masquerades.”

In the middle of this bush path, a shortcut to Pauly’s home, he thinks how he has never owned anything so special and vivid and big. His mother will be proud. His cousins will be impressed.

“Okay,” Pauly says, and takes them home, checking over his shoulder at every corner to make sure they are still there, tall and conspicuous and all his.

The masquerades are swooshing in the corner of the living room, between the old TV with the crooked antennae and the heat-trapping velvet curtains that Pauly’s mother keeps forgetting to replace. The masquerades are so bright, too bright maybe, for the otherwise dim apartment, and Pauly, seated on the edge of the sofa, sometimes has to look away, afraid his eyes will rupture from color.

It wasn’t hard getting the masquerades home. They moved through the bush without problems, hopped over the gate gracefully—as if they were featherlight; when the Alele security guards had seen Pauly and the masquerades approaching, they waved and asked: “And what do we have here?” To which Pauly replied, “These are my masquerades,” and the masquerades had swayed and Pauly liked the way the guards nodded, touched their cap visors to show they were impressed.

His mother has warned him not to bring strangers home, yes. So, in this second thing, he is a disobedient son. But Pauly is sure she will understand that masquerades aren’t things you pass up, especially when they belong to you. And isn’t it his mother who always says never to leave his belongings lying around? Never to lose them?

Pauly doesn’t know what appropriate conversation with masquerades sounds like. Should he ask where they have come from? Would that be impolite? Would that be looking a gift horse in the mouth? Or should he ask what they do for fun? They don’t look like they’d want to play football, staining their materials, which have somehow stayed clean through that bush passage. But maybe he shouldn’t presume. Are they similar to pets he has to feed?

He finally speaks up. “Can I offer you biscuit and water?”

The red aso-oke masquerade bends forward, cloth rippling like a wave, then straightens. This voice is soft too, but more slippery, silkier than the feathered masquerade’s. “Palm oil,” the masquerade says from behind its silver mask.

“You want palm oil?”

“Yes,” it says, the slinking out, drawing long. “Only palm oil.”

Pauly’s mother arrives from her seamstress job in the middle of this conversation.

“Oh,” she says when she steps into the room, lugging bags of vegetables and fish for dinner in one hand and bolts of fabric in the other. She stands there for a long moment, looking at the masquerades, her body not quite in or out. “Oh,” she repeats. “We have company?”

“These are my masquerades,” Pauly announces. He stands tall, all of his ten-year-old height. He spreads his hands toward them, as if they are an art project of his making. He waits for his mother to be impressed.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/03/24/masquerade-season-pemi-aguda/

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