By Guy Riessen

From the September 2021 issue of Cosmic Horror Monthly

“It’s brilliant, don’t you think?”

“Yes, the way he’s captured the evening light, gracing the leaves and grass blades with the most delicate strokes. The rich color-palette on the left evokes a happy end to the day. But there’s also a definite finality marked by the intense black and cobalt-blue he’s used on the opposite side of the canvas, as if the final curtain is being drawn slowly across the stage of life.”

“And the way the woman’s dress practically glows in the last rays of the setting sun as they glitter through the leaves. Diaphanous… is that the word?”

“Indeed. Like translucent gold.”

The man and the woman stand together, shoulders nearly touching, their heads tip slightly toward each other, like lovers on a park bench.

He wears a dark suit, almost black, with thin gray stripes, his red hair slicked and combed with Brilliantine. His brogued wingtip shoes peek out from his neatly cuffed and sharply creased pants legs.

She is a little taller than he is; her straw-yellow hair bobbed just below her ears. It’s cut higher in the back, and curves down to her jawline. Her green, sleeveless dress drapes freely across the curve of her hips and down to her knees. A gold-brocade belt is cinched at her thin waist, a fox fur slung across her shoulders, carefully appearing heedless.

The woman places her hand on his shoulder, her voice drops so low that Horace must step closer to overhear. “But the faces….”

“Disturbing. But it’s a Morrow, and I think that’s the point. The fact that people in Morrow’s paintings never have faces is intentionally dissociative, to make the viewer question their own place in a fleeting world, perhaps. The day is at its end, but what of night? It leaves me with a sense of uncertainty, of disorientation.”

Another man steps into the white-walled gallery room; the overhead spotlight grazes the top of his short curly black hair as he moves close to the large canvas. He speaks in a quiet voice, “Maybe it’s an effort to draw the observer into the art itself. By leaving the faces blank, the viewer is invited to insert their own face, or the faces of people they know, into the painting? Perhaps the personal implications are intended to be as ephemeral and malleable as the people you see each day on the trolly.”

“Do you know the artist?” The woman asks this new man who wears dark tan slacks and a darker vest. The sleeves of his dress shirt are uncuffed and rolled up to his elbows, a crisp bowtie at his neck.

He partially blocks their view, but steps aside, still peering intently at the painting as he answers, “Not exactly, no. I’m the curator, but no, I don’t actually know the artist. They only make contact through the post, and everything else is handled through an account manager at New York Trust. The paintings arrived crated from a shipping company with only instructions on how to re-crate the unsold canvases, a contact at the shippers, and an account number for sales deposits.”

“How odd,” the woman says, a finger just to the side of her lips.

“And mysterious,” the man says, gently stroking the woman’s hand that rests on his shoulder.

“Mysterious, not unlike the people in the painting, yes?” The curator says, his head turning toward the couple.

Horace Morrow steps back, moves into the unlit corner of the room away from the faceless abomination turning in his direction. The curator’s face is fleshy planes and angles, curves and bulges—twisted ropy tissue, pulpy topographic features that churn to a featureless blank. Where eyes should be, there are only shallow pink pits sketched with broken capillaries as Horace’s eyes flick around from hairline to chin. The curator’s nose flattens into a mottled expanse of veins that pulse and hover just below skin made translucent by the bright gallery spotlights. What might be thin but smiling lips appear only as a ragged slash across the curator’s face. Horace turns his horrified gaze away.

***

—What a tragedy. He lived in your building, didn’t he?

—He’d lived there for years. Rented the entire top floor.

—Really? And no one knew who he was?

—Oh, I knew his name, Horace, or sometimes he went by Mr. M. … but that was all I knew about him. Never had any idea we had a painter in the building at all, let alone someone so famous.

—He’s the one that never painted faces, right?

—Yes. That seems very odd, don’t you think? Not that I’m one to criticize artwork or anything. No one in the building really knew him, and I for one never saw anyone go upstairs except him. No visitors, no family. He was courteous enough when we crossed paths on the stairs or on the street, but he always seemed to be in a hurry to excuse himself. And he never made eye-contact.

—I’ve heard artists are sometimes like that… living in their own world.

—I wonder… what will happen to all his art?

—I don’t know.

***

“Play tonight, sir! Have you seen The Yellow Sign? Talk of the city. You’ll wanta see it before all your friends do, eh?” The young boy’s voice is high and reedy, and he pushes a printed flyer into his hand. “There yeh go, sir!”

Horace Morrow looks down at the boy’s leather britches, an older brother’s pair, held up by black suspenders, and clamped at a waistband that is a few inches too big around. The folds of the leather are a deep raw sienna but creased and cracked with lines of lighter transparent earth, mixed with cobalt and spinel-black at the bottom of the boy’s legs where water had splashed the leather.

He doesn’t look at the boy’s face; he’s afraid of what he wouldn’t see. He rarely looks at faces at all anymore, so he nods and mumbles, “Thank you.”

“Play tonight! Two weeks only! Play tonight!” the boy shouts as he moves off down the sidewalk.

Horace turns away, as one of his neighbors pushes their way out of the common entrance, pretending to study the flyer while really he only stares at the mica-speckled concrete walkway—a titanium-white that could be speckled with a flick of a broad brush dipped in thinned chromatic black. To that could be added broad strokes of ochre and mars yellow mixed with ivory black.

He studies the intermingled color of the sidewalk, imagining the feel of the canvas-bite against paint-clotted bristles. The neighbor hails a cab at the curb. From the voice he recognizes Mrs. Heathwite from the second floor, and Horace looks up as the cab pulls away. He folds the flyer neatly in half and slips it into the pocket of his russet-beige overcoat.

He walks into the lobby and up the five flights of stairs to the door of his flat. There is just one door on the landing; his is the only apartment on the top floor, the last before the building, and man, gives right-of-way to sky.

***

—Propopagnosia.

—What’s that?

—It’s someone who can’t remember faces.

—Like when you forget the name of that gentleman you saw at the party last week?

—Maybe more like if you saw that gentleman the next day on the trolly, except you wouldn’t even know it was the same person you saw last week.

—Huh. How do you know he suffered from prop… propag….

—Propopagnosia. The term is old, from the Romans or Greeks or something. It’s not anything new, but they really started seeing it in shell-shocked soldiers after the war… anyway, I heard there were old medical files from his time as an art student at Miskatonic University in his effects in the flat.

***

He can clearly remember the moment when he stopped seeing faces. He was twenty-three and lived just a block away from the Miskatonic University campus, in a tiny one-room apartment that was more than half occupied by his easels, rolls of canvas, paints, brushes and color-spattered rags. His mother had died in childbirth, but his father had died the year before Horace had moved to Arkham, Massachusetts; he’d left Horace a small amount of money. Money that Horace attempted to stretch as far as possible so he could devote all of his time to painting.

He is sure he could see faces up until that point, but when he thinks back to that time, all those faces, all those noses and eyes, cheeks and mouths smooth themselves out into featureless veined expanses of twitching, writhing flesh. He can no longer even conjure the memory of them in his mind’s eye.

Horace shudders and turns his thoughts away from the faces he can’t remember, fingering the sharp corner of the folded flyer in his coat pocket.

The moment his propopagnosia originally manifested, oddly, marked the moment of his success—when instead of becoming a fatal flaw, his inability to paint faces became an intriguing mystery in the art world. The unintentional became the inexplicably purposeful, as critic and art-lover alike were drawn to the enigma of a faceless subject.

The teaching hospital, a part of the Miskatonic School of Medicine, which operated out of a wing of Saint Mary’s, had posted a flyer on the bulletin board at the art supply store where Horace purchased his paints and canvas. The flyer announced the medical school’s offer to host a limited number of artists at the surgeons’ anatomical sessions. They would accept a maximum of one painter and one sculptor. All that had been required was to drop a brief application into the box on the counter.

He’d been surprised and delighted when he received word from the shop owner that he’d been the painter accepted to the program, which was to run each night for one week. Horace had diligently arrived early to each class before the dissections continued, the aspiring surgeons working with single-minded focus on their cadavers.

Horace had sketched, the movement of his charcoal quick and loose across the paper, as the medical students worked their way up from the feet, peeling back the skin and fatty tissue and revealing the muscle beneath. It was one thing to study drawings in George B. Bridgman’s anatomy book, but it was quite another to see the shroud of flesh pulled back to reveal the hidden mechanics that drove human motion.

Late each night he would pour over the sketches from the dissection class. He’d paint without break, through the morning and into the late afternoon, turning the charcoal studies into full-color oil paintings before he’d collapse into his bed and catch a couple hours of sleep. Then he’d leap from his mattress, splash his face with water, and head back to the basement morgue awash in the thick and cloying odor of formaldehyde.

The final evening’s class had concerned exposing the cadavers’ facial structures, the jaw, nose and throat. Horace sat as usual, eagerly leaning forward on his lab stool, sketchbook propped on his thighs and held at an angle with one hand, while he quickly roughed the charcoal drawings with his other.

The students had just exposed the larynx and vocal cords, moved up to the jawline, and drew out the carotid artery with probe and forceps. Finally, one of the young interns had drawn their scalpel along the cadaver’s hairline and began to peel the face back from the muscles and bone beneath. The student had slipped his gloved hands under the bloody flesh and layer of fat; he’d lifted and tugged, as if removing a latex mask.

Horace had felt a moment of lightheadedness, of disorientation, his vision distorted like a mirror at the county fair funhouse, and the next thing he remembered was choking awake to the throat-tightening and burning vapors of smelling salts under his nose.

He had closed his eyes tight again, waving one hand so they knew he was awake and would pull the vial of ammonia away from his face. He’d heard the muffled sound of barely concealed laughter.

Someone in the back had said, “Figures it would be the painter.”

“Can you hold up two fingers, Mr. Morrow?” The voice came from his right, and after a moment he’d recognized the voice as the professor’s.

Horace stopped waving his hand and tucked in his fingers and thumb, leaving two up in a V.

He heard the professor chuckle and say, “Very good, young man. But if you ever have an art show in Britain, you’ll want to turn your palm the other direction if you want to avoid a pub brawl.”

More laughter.

Horace had opened his eyes again, his vision blurry and watery from the ammonia. He had squinted at the professor who leaned over him.

Except instead of seeing his professor’s grinning face, he had found himself staring into a knotted expanse of pink flesh that crawled and squirmed where a face should be.

He had blinked several times, fast, to clear the tears from his eyes, but the vision didn’t change. He had glanced from professor to student and from student to student, feeling gorge rise in his throat. Their white medical smocks had been starkly visible. Scalpels and probes were gripped in five-fingered hands and clearly glittered in the brightness from the lights hung above each cadaver.

But no one had a face.

***

— Propopagnosia, huh? You know, that’s interesting because I heard he never painted people’s faces in his artwork. The faces never had any features at all. Just flesh-colored blank ovals balanced on necks.

—I’d been to one of his shows, actually,  a month ago or so. Although before he died, no one even knew if the artist was a man or a woman, but everyone attributed all sorts of scholarly and philosophical reasons why the faces were left blank, and it turns out he just couldn’t really see faces.

—Did he ever speak at the gallery openings? That’s a silly question… you just said no one knew if the artist was a man or a woman. I guess I was wondering if he ever spoke from behind a curtain or to the press or something.

—I don’t think so, no. But an article said that sometimes the galleries would discover written artist-statements packed in the crates of artwork, but they simply said things like, “I want my work to stand on its own, without the preconceived notions created by thinking you may know the artist behind the pieces.”

***

Horace has been standing in line for nearly thirty minutes, staring at the flyer in his hand; the edges of the paper wrinkle in his damp palms. People swarm like faceless flies, buzz about the sidewalk as they pass the red velvet rope strung between the brass posts. All the activity is too hard to ignore and his eyes keep flicking upward to stare into the veined and crusted skin that stretches across pitted sockets where eyes should be. Things move beneath the raw membrane, things that Morrow cannot see directly, but which churn and contort, distend and bulge, threatening to split the gauzy tissue and birth the abominations beneath.

The couple in front of him leave the box office window and he steps up to take his turn.

“How many, sir? We’ve only got a few in Section C with three or four together. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but you may have to split your group,” a young woman’s voice says from within the small oak-paneled room. A gray metal register stands on the dark wood counter; one delicate hand hovers over the ivory white keys. Her other hand rests near a small metal box filled with crimson tickets printed with black ink.

“Oh, thank you,” Horace stammers, “but it’s just for me. One is fine”

It sounds like she’s snapping gum, and Horace can smell the distinct odor of Adams Black Jack, but he keeps his eyes low so he won’t have to see her jaw work up and down, up and down, without teeth or lips, featureless skin pulling and stretching from nose to jaw, veins throbbing just beneath the surface as they coil, stretch and bunch.

“’Kay.” Snap. Snap. Horace imagines the young lady’s mouthless jaw working beneath the translucent flesh, strained taut then bloated in billowy waddles, the sound of popping bubbles folding into the bulbous, pulpy tissue.

“I said, what section, sir?” Horace struggles to pay attention as a white sheet of paper with a drawing of the theater seating slides across the counter and into his view. Many circles on the page, indicating the various seats, have been colored in with a cerulean blue ink.

Snap. Snap. He points absently to one of the uncolored circles and fishes his billfold from his pocket.

The lady passes his change back, says, “See you tonight, dear. Hope you enjoy the show.”

Snap. Snap.

***

—If he lived in your building all this time, how could you not know him?

—Oh, I knew him, but he was very private. Polite though, and when he was introduced, he always asked to simply be called “Horace.”

—I see.

—Even if he’d told me his name was Horace Morrow though, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Would you?

—No, I supposed not unless something like this tragedy happened, anyway. The art world is a pretty rarefied atmosphere, isn’t it?

–One never guesses one is living in the same building as the famous unless they go about declaring it. And then you’re like as not to think that’s gauche.

***

Carefully timing his arrival to avoid seeing people, the cab drops him at the front of the theater just as the house lights flicker the final call before the show. Eyes down, he watches the bright circle of light where the usher’s flashlight illuminates the carpet as he is shown to his seat.

He breathes a sigh of relief into the faceless dark as he seats himself and the curtain raises on the first scene. Shifting uneasily, he wonders why he’s done this to himself. Why would he come to a play where he must stare down to a stage where fleshy blobs will dance like rotted, gelatinous chestnuts atop the cavorting bodies of strangers?

Averting his eyes, he listens to the dialogue. It takes a few minutes before he realizes  nearly all the actors wear heavy black cloaks with hoods drawn low to hide their faces. All except the jester in tatterdemalion ribbons and cloth, who dances and cavorts, back to the audience and in front of a raised dais on which sits an actor swathed in thick layers of yellow robes.

Ah, clearly that robed figure must be the King in Yellow, Horace thinks. The dialogue rolls and clatters about the theater, at once both nonsensical and yet mesmerizing. In the audience around him he can hear people gasp, cry, and titter in delight to what seem to be the same lines. He tries to focus on the words spoken on stage, but they don’t make sense. The shouts and fractured lines of the robed actors are confusing, yet they also draw his attention ever closer to the King that sits upon the throne.

Horace shakes his head, scrubs at his cheek and frowns in concentration. As the words rattle through his mind like bones and teeth in a mojo bag, he tries to force himself to look away… away from the yellow-robed figure now rising from the throne, now walking to the edge of the dais with his arms outstretched. The King chants a strange language, harsh and dissonant to Horace’s ears.

A stage light suddenly snaps on, and the King is bathed in a dazzling light that limns his hood and shoulders in a brilliance that’s hard to focus on, and yet there, awash in the radiant glow, the King turns toward him as if he were alone in the audience.

Horace cannot look away. He’s held by the resplendent light and the discordant and disorienting chants now taken up by the black-robed figures arrayed in a crescent before the King while the Jester, crouched at his side, clutches at the fabric of the yellow robe.

Horace cannot avert his eyes. The entire theater feels balanced on a thinly stretched sheet of rubber that dips and flexes.

The King in Yellow pushes his hood back, revealing a stark white mask which seems to smile upon him alone.

No, Horace thinks, not a mask.

And he gasps as, for the first time in more than a decade…

Horace sees a human face.

***

—He had a new opening, just a week and a half ago, at that new gallery.

—The one on West Derby?

—That’s the one. Same opening night as that new play at the theater downtown, The King in Yellow. I remember quite specifically because they were both on the same society page in the paper. Not many people attended the gallery, what with the new play on such a short visit from New York.

—You think his poor opening might have caused some kind of severe depression? Maybe led to what happened?

—Well, his shows had always been lauded before. Could be hard for anyone used to adoring praise.

***

“You look different than you did onstage,” Horace says flatly. His stomach clenches as he looks at the actor in the mirror. The man wipes some kind of cloth across the flesh of his face, digging the corners of the fabric into the veined pits where his eyes should be, stretching the skin across the bulbous folds where a nose should sit. Horace looks over at the costume racks where several cadmium-yellow robes drape on heavy metal hangers.

“What?” says the actor as he sits at the brightly lit dressing table. He takes a deep breath and then lets loose with a guttural laugh. “Ah, yes, the mask. Funny, my good man.” He waves absently at the wall where a dozen white masks hang, roughly painted with a titanium white and a coal-black symbol across each broad forehead. The Yellow Sign, Horace remembers the emblem from the flyer and the play. Funny that the yellow sign is painted in black….

“Mask?” Horace mumbles, looking to the wall at his left.

“Devil of a time projecting my emotional voice through it.”

“Oh. Yes, of course. I imagine it is,” Horace says, staring at the masks. He starts to turn toward the actor at the table, then glances sharply back. It looks for a moment  like the masks are smiling, frowning, arching their eyebrows in surprise. But he looks more closely; it must have been a trick of the light. All the masks are similar, emotionless, and appear to be solid, not flexible enough to even sag on the hooks.

“What kind of material are they made from?”

The actor doesn’t pause what he’s doing, but answers, “Hmm? Wood of some sort, I guess, very light though. It’s like acting through a pillow strapped to my face, honestly.”

“How do you keep it on? During the performance?”

With a flick of his wrist, the actor screws on the lid of a glass jar filled with some kind of pale, thickly viscous goo.

“They’ve got a fabric tie-thing… what they’re hanging from there, actually.” The actor pauses for a moment then adds, “Plus the robe’s hood is pretty heavy and mostly keeps the mask from flopping forward.”

Horace is silent for long enough that the man, finishing what he’s doing in the mirror, stands and turns towards him. Horace drops his eyes immediately, but he still sees the smooth, featureless flesh in his peripheral vision, above the collar the actor buttons and tugs a tie around.

“Was there something else, my good man? You want an autograph, perhaps?” The man chuckles.

Horace pauses for a moment and then blurts out, “Why yes. There is something I want. I really loved the play, you see. And if I could….” He pauses again, eyes toward the floor.

“Yes?”

Horace clears his throat and says, “I’d like to buy one of those masks.”

“What?” The man laughs again. But his laugh dwindles off as Horace pulls out his billfold and extends a handful of one-hundred-dollar bills.

“Oh. I say.” The actor takes the proffered bills, trying to appear like he’s merely waving them, and not counting them. He runs his fingers across the edges, making a sound like a fingernail across corduroy.

“You, my friend, are obviously a true fan, sir! I’m never one to want to disappoint. I’d even say it’s an actor’s obligation to do what he can for his adoring audience. And would you look at that, I think maybe I’ve dropped one of the masks backstage after the performance and accidentally crushed it underfoot,” the actor says dramatically. He takes the first mask from the wall hanger and hands it to Horace. “I’m sure the production manager won’t miss it. There are, after all, still eleven left.”

“Now then… about that autograph,” the man starts, but Horace turns, flings the door open, runs down the short hall and through the exit.

“Hey, you get your autograph, buddy?” the guard stationed outside the door asks. But Horace is already turning the alley corner and heading onto West Pickman street. He runs for two blocks before he stops, out of breath, and rests with his back against a red brick wall. After a moment, he spies headlights in the distance and raises his hand to flag a cab.

***

—He wore some kind of a mask, they say.

—Yes, I know. That’s very strange, isn’t it?

—Why do you think someone would wear a mask if they were going to kill themselves?

—For that matter, even if it was foul play, why would you put a mask on the person you were going to kill? That just makes no sense at all.

–You think it was some kind of occult ritual?

–What’s that?

–I don’t know, really. I’ve been reading about the explosion of spiritualism. It’s in the newspapers quite a lot recently. But maybe it’s some kind of pagan thing from down in New Orleans or something? Silly of me to bring it up when I have no idea what I’m talking about. But maybe?

Shared laughter

***

With his canvas on the easel, Horace sits on the painter’s stool. He has the mask-tie wrapped tightly around his head and tied at the base of his skull. He looks into the mirror clamped to the easel leg. He shudders and rocks back from the mirror, away from the image of squirming ropey knots of muscle sliding beneath featureless mottled flesh that looks back at him from hollowed sunken flat eye-pits, and nearly topples from the stool. He doesn’t understand. Why can’t he see the mask of the King in Yellow?

Horace scowls at the floor; with only a single tie, the mask had slipped forward, balancing awkwardly on his chin, exposing portions of his face and ruining the effect the King in Yellow mask had had on stage.

Horace didn’t have a hooded robe to hold the top of the mask in place. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Did the actor mention that? Probably not. Unlike the masks, there had only been a couple robes on the costume rack, so he wouldn’t have sold one even if Horace had thought to ask. Had he asked though? Horace presses at his temples where the mask had slipped forward. Stupid, stupid, he shouts in his mind.

Balancing his palette on his lap, he scooches to the stool edge, reaches over his head with his left hand to hold the mask in place, and picks up his brush with his right. Carefully, he dabs the bristles into the cadmium yellow and leans forward to look in the mirror.

“Yes!” he says, his voice oddly muffled.

The face, the lips, and the mouth are clearly visible in the mirror and mimic the “Yes” perfectly. His own lips and mouth! He feels giddy, anxious to start.

Horace moves the brush tip in a slow arcing stroke, not quite touching the canvas yet, but tracing the edge of his right cheek and jawline, the cheek muscles bunch subtly with his smile.

His palette slips from his knee, and clatters to the floor. Flecks of paint scatter like stars around the three legs of the easel.

The writhing, wormy, blighted expanse of blank folds of skin shouts from the mirror as Horace shouts back. The brush drops from his fingers as he slips from the edge of the stool, dropping to the floor where he curls into a ball, crying. His tears and paint mix and smear distorted, grotesque rainbows onto his smock as he shudders on the hardwood floor.

***

—It was the fire department who broke down his door. This Saturday afternoon.

—What a horrid way to spend your weekend, called to find something like that!

—Not just the firemen though. The police were called first and once they had an idea what was going on, they called the fire department. Had to use an axe. Mr. Morrow had several locks and sturdy hinges.

—Well, he did value his privacy, you said.

—Really more of a recluse even beyond his desire for privacy, I think. You know, he wouldn’t even make eye contact with me when we would say hello in the lobby.

—Some men, and artists I bet even more so, are like that. Really shy when they talk to gals.

—It did rather lend an air of mystery to him. Like I said, I had no idea what he did for a living. I wondered if he might not be independently wealthy even!

—And he was handsome too?

–Yes, he was quite handsome, actually. Although his hair was often in quite a tousle. And his clothes were nice, but somewhat rumpled. As if he couldn’t be bothered to look in a mirror before he stepped out. But even that lent its own sense of charm, to be honest.

Shared laughter.

***

“Can I see one?” Horace asks. Holding out his open palm, his eyes look only at his hand.

“Sure Mack, but you break it, you buy it,” the shopkeeper of The Outdoorsman laughs.

Horace stares at the brass fishhook that glitters in his hand.

“It’s a joke, Mack. How’re you gonna break a fishhook?” the shopkeeper says, slapping Horace on the shoulder. The man laughs some more, then moves back behind the counter.

“Ah. Yes, that’s funny.” He holds the fishhook up to the light and walks closer to the storefront window. He watches the afternoon sunlight glint from the shank, curve along to the point, and finally twinkle from the barb. He pulls a pair of pliers from his coat pocket and grips the bend in the fishhook and pinches it to a sharp angle.

“Oh, whoa there, Mack! You really are gonna have to buy that one. What kind of fancy tricks you want to use while fishing’s yer own business, but you can’t just go around damaging store property like that!” Horace hears the slap of the counter flip-top open.

Horace pushes the crimped angle of the bent hook against his fingertip, testing its sharpness. Then he works the point and barb back out a little wider again with the pliers. Horace says, “How many of these do you have? I need a hundred or so.”

The sound of the shopkeeper’s footsteps slow then stop as Horace holds the hook up into the golden sunlight again. Rather than the smooth curve of a normal fishhook, the bottom is now sharply angled and shaped like a V. It looks like a brass check mark with a barbed point on the short end.

“Uh. Sure Mack. Sure.” The laugh comes again. “I think I’ve gotta hundred of that one, size three-oh, I think.” The shopkeeper takes the bent fishhook, looks at it, and hands it back to Horace. “Yep, that’s a three-oh. I can set you up,” the shopkeeper says as he heads back toward the counter.  “Whatcha fishing for anyway? Bass? Haven’t seen that particular hook-trick before. Interesting though, I gotta say. Can’t see as how that’ll work better than a regular hook, but you’re the fisherman, right?”

“Fishing? Oh, right. Yes, bass.”

***

—Do you know how they found him?

—What do you mean? He was in my building… I heard he was just collapsed on the floor.

—No, I mean what tipped the authorities off?

—Oh that! Nasty business. Mr. Jenkins, he lives a floor above me, and right below the attic flat on the street side. There, can you see Mr. Jenkin’s flat, with the curtains blowing through the open window?

—There?

—Yes, that’s the one. He called the exterminator because of a dreadful smell. He thought it was coming from inside his own apartment, of course. Like some rats or something had died or dragged something into his walls, but even more chokingly strong. That’s how he described it to me, chokingly strong! Can you imagine? Even with this cold weather, he’s still keeping the window open like that to air his place out. It must have been truly horrendous.

***

Horace peers through the eye-slits. It’s different this morning, he doesn’t sense the constricted vision, the narrow view he saw yesterday. Or was it perhaps the day before?

He shrugs, not knowing where such a silly thought came from. Why would his eyelids constrict his vision? No one ever notices how their eyelids obstruct their sight like fleshy curtains that raise and lower on a play, do they?

Even though they must, by virtue of physics?

No. People look right past them as if they weren’t even there. It’s all in the mind… filtered, strained out. Like the rumble and clank of the streetcars, dizzying cacophony when one first moves from farm to city, blotting out all other sounds, but soon fading so completely from the mind that one can hear the notes from the gramophone drifting through the apartment window across the avenue even during rush hour.

He sits, feeling the warmth of the sunlight from his window. Outside, the morning rush hour is starting, and he hears the car horns and streetcars on the street below.

He stares into the mirror clamped to the left side of his easel and looks at a face he’s not seen for a very long time. His palette balancing on his knees, he perches at the edge of his stool.

No, that’s not true. He has seen his face recently; why it was, in fact, not that long ago at all.

The sable bristles of the brush held loosely between his thumb and forefinger ever-so-slightly dip down, and dimple the shiny chestnut brown bead of paints forgotten on the rainbow-hued paint-spattered wood of his palette.

Yes, he’d seen his face up there on the dais, lit ablaze by the golden stage-lights.

But that doesn’t make sense. He was in the theater audience that night. He’s never been on a stage, he thinks as he gazes into the mirror, watching the curve of his nose, the arch of his brow, as he slowly shakes his head.

Plus, hadn’t he just seen his face a couple days ago… or was it three? Four? When he still had to hold the mask to his face to keep it from slipping?

Mask? That doesn’t make sense either. He had been looking at his face, not a mask… just like now. He leans toward the mirror and watches himself, watches his face.

He smiles.

He frowns.

He sneers, arching a disdainful eyebrow.

The movement stings, pinches, but he doesn’t mind. Not really. It’s a minor annoyance to be put off for now, ignored until more convenient, like the dryness of his throat. He’ll take care of that and his grumbling stomach shortly, once he has a good start on his self-portrait.

He must take advantage of this wonderful noon light filtering into his studio.

He sits. Palette balancing. Brush loosely held. He stares into the mirror.

The candle gutters and goes out with a trailing wisp of smoke that coils upward from the crimson-embered tip. But even without the candlelight, it’s not too dark. The first light of a rose-pink dawn softly kisses the clouds outside, casting a warm glow through the window.

The white blank expanse of the empty canvas next to the mirror bounces a pleasant light onto his face, and Horace peers at his pink full lips. He might have to add just a bit more crimson to his palette, he thinks, looking closely and noting that his lips don’t look cracked or parched at all, regardless of how they may feel as he squeezes his desiccated slug of a tongue through the narrow gap between his teeth to press against splintery wood.

He sits. Peering at the mirror, he watches the reflection of the delicate smeared reds and purples of the evening sky outside cast tints and hues through the window which crawl across his round cherubic cheeks.

The pain is distant as he crinkles a smile, his teeth white in the gloaming. He feels his cracked lips split, tastes coppery blood. But no, he looks into the mirror, his lips are fine. Beautiful, actually.

He sits. Eyes staring.

He sits.

He sits.

***

—Don’t you think the newspaper reporting has been remarkably sparse considering the sensationalism of such a famous painter’s death.

—It is a bit strange. There was an article in the Daily morning edition yesterday, but it was retracted in that evening’s paper. It initially mentioned that the coroner had to bring in a surgeon from Saint Mary’s to remove the mask that the poor man was wearing. But in the evening edition, after the retraction, it didn’t mention anything about the autopsy at all, only that there would be a closed-casket service on Sunday.

—That’s not the half of it.

—What do you mean? Half of what?

—The mask, of course. My sister is a nurse at Saint Mary’s; she was there when they brought him in.

—Really? They took him to the hospital?

—Oh, he wasn’t alive when they found him; he was quite dead and stinking up even poor Mr. Jenkin’s flat, remember? But they took him straight away to the hospital. The problem was he was wearing a mask and there was a lot of blood.

—Whose blood? The painter’s?

—Yes, they thought it was the painter’s. But they couldn’t take the mask off the, uhm….

—The painter’s dead body?

—Indeed. So, at Saint Mary’s, my sister helped to get him onto a gurney, and into the classroom morgue they have there in the basement. It’s a teaching hospital, you know.

—Oh? I didn’t know that.

—Anyway, my sister, she said there was a lot of caked and dried blood, all coming from under the mask.

—From under the mask?

—Yes, that’s why they needed to get the mask off. They needed a cause of death. And there was all this blood. They needed to discover what had happened. The receiving doctor had to use a fluoroscope because they couldn’t tell how the mask was affixed. What they saw was absolutely awful!

—What did they see?

—On the interior of the mask there were what looked like more than fifty fishhooks with their ends, the part you attached to the fishing line, pounded into the inside of the wooden mask. The hooks were all facing in different directions but all with the barbed part hooked deep into the flesh of his face.

—Oh my!

—The mask had slits for the eyes, but there was no hole for the man’s mouth. No way to eat or drink. My sister said they had to use a scalpel to remove his face from his skull.

—Oh! Did the hooks kill him? Blood loss?

—No, my sister said dehydration. Toxins build up in the blood until the organs literally shut down one by one. Takes five or six days, but what an awful way to die. I think I’d rather drown than die from lack of water.

—Couldn’t he have just shifted the mask to one side or something?

—The mask was designed, with the way the hooks were placed and whatnot, so it couldn’t be removed without removing the poor man’s entire face. They had to slice all the way around the mask and peel his face off, leaving nothing recognizable at all.

—Oh! Like his paintings!

—What, dear?

—His paintings, they don’t have faces.

—You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that! But that’s quite enough, I’ll get the heebie-jeebies and won’t sleep at all tonight.

Shared laughter.

—Let’s move on to something less morose then?

—It’s why I called on you in the first place, dear. You’d never guess, but I won that raffle over at Pascals!

—What? Really? I bought a couple tickets when I went in to pick up some ground beef on Tuesday, but I never win those things.

—Me either! I was so excited!

—So… it was tickets to that Broadway play, right? Playing at the old theater on Pickman avenue?

—Yes! It’s two tickets for the Yellow Sign… have you seen it?

End.

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