SAM CLARITY, founder of the Clarity Logging Company, was one of the first in that industry to embrace the use of steam power, and his foresight paid off. He became a wealthy and powerful man—powerful especially within his realm: a hundred-thousand acres of pine forest in northwest Oregon. In the town of Fogg on the Nehalem River, the hub of his prosperous and growing logging operation, his word was law.
Though Sam Clarity was not a grave man, neither was he given to foolishness, and his word-laws were correspondingly serious and reasonable, with one exception: It was his command that on Fat Tuesday, no citizen or visitor to Fogg would show their face in public. This is not to say that everyone stayed home—very much the opposite. Fat Tuesday was a day unlike any other in Fogg, given over strictly to merriment with friends and neighbors. There was even a parade, led by the Carnival King, and featuring a procession of 50 strapping lumberjacks, who carried on their shoulders the de-limbed, de-barked, skin-smooth trunk of a sugar pine, upon which rode (side-saddle, for the sake of modesty) the Carnival Queen. And yet none of the revelers broke the law and showed their faces in public, as every one of them wore a mask.
Anyone caught in public in Fogg on Fat Tuesday not wearing a mask was subjected to a flogging and a forfeit. The flogging was done with a whip especially made for the purpose—the so-called “Carnival Cat.” The Carnival Cat was composed of nine long and colorful strips of silk, braided at one end to form a handle, and was incapable of inflicting any harm beyond chafing the recipient’s dignity. The forfeit was to sing a low and vulgar ballad unmasked, so that friends and neighbors might judge the character of the transgressor by the color of their cheeks. In truth, the color didn’t really matter: maidens and youths were sure to be gleefully reproached for blushing too little, and married folk too much, during the performance.
As to how the idea for this strange, truncated version of Carnival got into Clarity’s head in the first place, there is little consensus. That he came to Oregon from somewhere else is all that was known for certain concerning the origins of the man. Some believed he was Cajun, others Irish, and still others that he was the child of German missionaries stationed in South America, and that he grew up in Columbia (some said Venezuela). But all of that is mere speculation, and as far as our story is concerned, where he got the idea is neither here, nor there, nor even somewhere south of the Panama Canal.
It should be noted that despite the harmless nature of the chastisements, the law was taken seriously by the citizens of Fogg, and was rarely violated except by the newly arrived, who were, for amusement’s sake, often kept unaware of the town’s unusual Fat Tuesday customs.
Having described and explained the tradition as well as we are able, we may commence with the story proper. It concerns a young woman with the appropriately charming name of Miranda Birdsong, who was also known as “The Mask-Maker of Fogg.”
Miranda grew up in Fogg, and had exhibited, at a tender age, a remarkable talent for making masks. As a child Miranda made masks for herself and her family, and these were so much admired by all who saw them that by the age of seventeen, the making of masks for Fogg’s one-day Carnival celebration had become, without any particular effort on Miranda’s part, a lucrative profession. She worked at her masks all year long, and on carnival day, one could fairly say that there was hardly a “face” in Fogg that did not carry the touch of Miranda Birdsong’s artistry in its countenance.
A few hours before dawn on the last Fat Tuesday of the 19th century, Miranda was still working on one mask—the last she had to make for the year. It was a mask for a young woman recently betrothed to Sam Clarity’s personal secretary, Isidor Steadfast. The couple was well-matched and deeply in love, and Miranda meant for the mask to show the joyful contentment the bride-to-be felt as she looked forward to a June wedding. When Miranda was done, though she had been a bit rushed, she was quite pleased with her work—until she put the mask on and looked at herself in the mirror. Her own face grew hot as the mask grinned back at her. It wasn’t joyful contentment that she saw on that simulacrum of a face, but a sort of mad ecstasy—the look of a starving man about to stab his fork into a heap of gravy-smothered broiled beef. It was too much, even for Carnival.
Miranda took the mask off and cursed softly to herself when she realized that although the lamp on her worktable had gone out, the room was growing lighter. Desperate for some quick way to fix the mask, she alighted on the idea of painting a tear on its cheek, and immediately did so, in the hopes of restoring some semblance of dignity to its aspect. The tear, though brilliantly executed (it looked as though it might roll off the mask and fall to the ground with a plop at any moment) was too large. Mama would scold me if I used that much water to moisten flour for a piecrust, Miranda thought to herself, that’s no tear, it’s a lake a soul could drown in.
Though Miranda felt the artistic merits of the mask had been ruined, she had run out of time. And anyway, the enormous tear did have the desired effect of diluting the overtly sensual appearance of the mask, and Miranda felt she could wear it in public without fear of ridicule. It was, of course, a mask she had made for herself.
She put on the mask and walked in the light of dawn to a certain grassy hill overlooking the Nehalem River. She had become quite familiar with this hill over the past several days. She came here hoping to see a boat coming up river. Perhaps it goes without saying that she was hoping to see a particular boat carrying a particular passenger. Isidor had been sent to Tillamook to transact some business on Sam Clarity’s behalf. He was supposed to return to Fogg by boat in two weeks, and almost three had passed.
Miranda only meant to sit by the river for an hour or so in the morning before returning to town to join in the festivities, but the hours of morning drifted by, followed by the hours of afternoon, and soon the sun would be settling into the pine-quilled hills across the Nehalem, and Miranda could not bring herself to abandon her vigil and return to Fogg.
She became suddenly aware that she was not alone—a man was sitting next to her.
“Who are you?” she demanded, startled.
“Isidor,” the man said.
The voice was Isidor’s, but the mask wasn’t, or at least, it wasn’t the mask Miranda made for him, and gave to him, and received high praise for from him, before he left for Tillamook.
“Isidor!” she exclaimed, taking in a deep breath of relief, and releasing a great puff of annoyance. “How you do sneak up on a body!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
But he did frighten her—or rather, the mask frightened her. It had some resemblance to his face, but was rounder and smoother, as though swollen. In color, it was a gray that was almost white. The eyes were thrown open as if in alarm. The mouth was open too, and in the darkness between the teeth, two little eyes peered out, as if some small creature had taken up residence therein. Miranda turned away—the mask gave her a most unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“I hate that mask,” she said. “Why aren’t you wearing the one I made for you?”
“I left it at home,” Isidor said.
It was a perfectly reasonable answer. He thought he’d be returning to Fogg days ago, so he left the mask at home. Had he walked through town on his return to get the mask, he would have undoubtedly been caught and made to suffer the consequences, and the consequences would have delayed their reunion for another miserable hour at least, and so Miranda forgave him—mostly.
“It’s horrible,” Miranda said. “Where did you get it?”
Isidor touched the mask with his fingertips, tentatively feeling the pale, rounded cheeks, the open eyes and mouth. “It is horrible,” he said, “I wish I could have worn a more pleasant one for you.”
“I’ve been watching for your boat,” Miranda said. “I didn’t see it.”
“I disembarked downriver a few miles.”
“So you could sneak up on me in that horrible mask and scare the daylights out of me?”
“It wasn’t by choice,” Isidor said. “The boat turned over.”
“Oh!” Miranda gasped, “how awful. Thank goodness you’re okay!” She grasped his hand. “You’re chilled to the bone! Let’s go back to town. I’ll make you some soup.”
“Miranda,” Isidor said, “there’s something I have to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“The wedding is off.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Miranda said, alarmed. “Not even to tease me.”
“I’m not teasing. The wedding is off.”
“Why? What have I done? Is there someone else?”
“There’s no one else, Miranda, and I would marry you if I could—but I can’t. There was a certain gentleman on the boat—I didn’t recognize him, but he knew me. It seems some arrangement was made when I was born—perhaps before I was born—and this gentleman—has come to collect.”
“Collect? Collect what?”
“You are promised to me, remember? I won’t let him have you.”
“I’m afraid he will insist,” Isidor said. “Miranda, you have to listen to me. It was with the utmost difficulty that I was able to persuade the gentleman to allow me to come here and speak to you at all. I don’t have much time. I want you to know that I love you, and I want you to be happy. Forget about me and find someone else.”
“Here he is now,” Isidor said.
Miranda saw the gentleman Isidor referred to approaching them. He was a tall man wearing a long black coat, and though Miranda doubted he was ever before in Fogg, Isidor had apparently informed him of the tradition of the day. The gentleman wore a mask, though like none Miranda had ever seen before—entirely black and featureless.
“It’s time to go, Isidor,” the gentleman said. His voice was soft and kind.
Miranda grasped Isidor’s hand as tightly as she could, but when he stood up, his hand slipped through her fingers like mist through the pine trees.
Sam Clarity had been searching for Miranda for some time, and while he searched, he had put together what he believed was an appropriate speech—short and to the point. Having found her, sitting on this hill overlooking the river, his carefully chosen words seemed to stick in his throat. He was wearing the mask Miranda had made for him: the face of a man who has made a place for himself in the world above his natural station, through exertion, cunning, and good fortune. Disregarding his own decree, he removed the mask. The face behind it was older, less certain, and tired. Clarity wiped a few beads of sweat off of his brow with his sleeve.
“I have received . . . news . . . that I . . . though I wish . . .” he said, and then stopped. This wasn’t going at all the way he had planned. He took a breath, collected himself, and was about to start over, but hesitated. Miranda was still looking across the river, and Clarity wasn’t sure she even knew he was there.
“I have received news that concerns you,” Clarity said firmly. “Do you hear me, Miranda?”
She did turn towards him then, and what a face he saw: a grimace of horror, and a tear on the cheek big enough for a soul to drown in. How strangely that face was reflected in the mask that lay next to her in the grass, staring up through empty eye sockets into a sky all but drained of light.
“I know what you have come to tell me,” Miranda said. “The boat carrying Isidor Steadfast back to Fogg has turned over in the Nehalem River, and Isidor is drowned.”