This story was dashed off as a sort of "improv" and collaboration for the Eden Mills Writers' Festival/Guelph International Jazz Fest. The cello piece performed by Isaiah Farahbakhsh which served as a jumping off point for this story isn't available. You kinda had to be there, man.
After three years the mother masks started to show their age. The colours became light-struck and dull, the mouth and eyes sagged, and each mask established an odor that was both general to the material and specific to the wearer. One mother took the initiative to wash out the inside of the mask, not taking into account that, though the scent had maybe become offensive to us, it was what the child was familiar with. One whiff of the washed mother and the relevant child had suspected something was up. The child, a podgy redheaded boy who was already timorous, wouldn’t come to the mother for two days. When he did return it was out of necessity only. The olfactory betrayal had been enough to wallop desire for affection out of the boy. He was removed after a week and for our own well being, none of us dared imagine where or what he was removed to.
While we found that the children wouldn’t tolerate washing the masks, they didn’t seem put off by cosmetic changes. Some mothers went to the trouble of touching up their masks, revivifying skin that had become sallow, re-ventilating hair that had been tugged and tousled by growing grip strengths. These were the mothers who went the extra mile to affix the drooping eye sockets to their own faces with improvised spirit gum, a process they then used on their waddling necks. At three, it seemed all the children did was reach and grab and the danger of exposure was becoming increasingly clear and present. Better attaching the masks made a kind of sense, but many of us suspected that there was as much vanity as utility in the attention some of us were starting to devote to our mother masks.
It was under the guise of convenience and longevity that some mothers started keeping their masks on at the barracks. The putting on and taking off was accelerating wear, was their reasoning. But soon these mothers were not just touching up the skin tones and untangling the wigs, but were applying make-up and styling their hair based on archive material that you would find at first secretively and then cavalierly tacked to the walls of their dorms.
Soon, the mothers who stayed in their masks also stayed in the maternal personality they affected in the field. As the years passed, as the children were growing and needing less from us, getting more from one another, our own purpose, our own sense of duty and worth became fragile. Those of us who took our masks off started going to those who kept theirs on for comfort and reassurance. The couplings happened so gradually that it’s impossible to say when they actually began. You would pass by single rooms and see a Face and a Mask in bed together, the Mask mothering the Face, stroking and speaking in the soothing voices they had become adept at. However, the program didn’t last long enough for the taboo of Faces and Masks going further with this intimacy to ever be resolved. There was always hearsay and conjecture about what so-and-so was doing with so-and-so, and when a Mask was found dead in their room, strangled, mask removed and torn, we assumed the unspeakable act was somehow connected to other acts we still hadn’t decided how to speak about.
After thirteen years, our time with the children ended. They were removed from us and reintegrated. We mothers watched as they were approached by the indigenous teens. We all felt the stress of the meeting personally, as there was some of us in those children. They had been with us all that time the same as we had been with them. And this made it all the more difficult to see these children we had raised from babies turned on, to see their bone and their viscera exposed, to see their flesh being torn as our masks might.
In the observation theatre, the horror and the failure registered on our all our faces no matter how hard we tried to keep our composure, except those in their mother masks. Their expressions remained unmoving, stoic and placid as they watched their children get furiously disassembled.