It wasn’t hard to find, or even necessarily hard to enter The Veiled Main Street. It’s the time spent there that more than makes up for the troubles not received. It was unassuming, like all treacherous places were. A long stretch of pavement, about a mile long. It twisted a bit at the end, hiding most or just a few buildings depending on which end of the street someone was on.
It never seemed odd that a majority of the people wandering The Rampant lands took a stroll down that street. The concept of supernatural influence had long been dismissed in the world. But the draw that the yellow dashes down the center of that street made a good case for the opposition. Perhaps it was the way that dividing line was spaced, hypnotic in some way.
Through word of mouth and a few bits of more structured documentation, the rituals of The Veiled Main Street were well known. Someone would enter the street from whatever side was closest. Although there were some reports of people taking long treks around it, as if attempting to avoid it altogether, but they were usually just choosing the side that seemed more appealing from a distance.
Once there, on one side or the other, that’s when the masks appear. They aren’t particularly scary or menacing, even though there are some that try to be upfront with their malice. They always wait at first. They watch, searching for a reason or weakness. Predatory is one way it could be described. whether it’s accurate or not is subjective.
Sometimes all it takes is for the person or people who just entered the street to make a move, the degree of importance of that move isn’t important, the masks begin to speak. They throw their voices without caution. The easiest to hear is always the insults. Vicious, petty, biting, abstract, intricate, and overwhelming all at once. Other times though, patience wins out within the ranks of the hidden faces. They hold their tongues until the arrival offers up some sort of tribute. j
There have been many offerings over the years. Sometimes they’re creations or opinions. Sometimes they’re insults thrown preemptively. It never matters though. Whatever the gift is, big or small, the heckling comes. It’s not always so negative though, sometimes support is generated. Unfortunately this sort of positivity is drowned out, sometimes it’s just ignored altogether.
From there, tradition speaks of a choice. One may continue onwards, facing continued, varied degrees of abuse and barely noticeable positivity. They could turn around and forget the place and the things experienced. Or, they find an open door, one that leads inside the dwellings of those in masks. It’s not clear when these choices became tradition, or whether or not it’s just a case of the choices always available becoming owned.
Her name was Carmen. And it was her turn to stroll down the pavement. Armed with the same tales as everyone else she prepared to be bombarded just like those who came before. she had the same belief that somehow she’d do it better than the forerunners. That there was something special that immunized her from the plights that seemed to be common or at the very least expected. Though, she would never admit it at the time of her arrival, she’d know it was a cocktail of pride, arrogance, and a streak of self-loathing a hundred miles long.
They were basic at first. Just like she imagined they’d be. From motionless mouths, comments on her red hair, wide hips, and limp came down upon her like the weight of dust over thousands of years. The names were ones she had heard before. And just like those days of childhood taunts she had to remind herself that no, she didn’t belong on a spice rack, nor was the accident that twisted her leg a product of poor genes. They were doing exactly what she wanted. But, that was her secret.
The warnings given to her had been clear as church bells: Do not engage with them, accept the insults and then make one of the three choices available. Under no circumstance should she return the treatment given to her. There was of course The Golden Rule that had to be followed. Thankfully she had her secret, which meant that she was well within the scope of the courtless law, if she chose to throw the stones back. She chose to throw the stones back.
She learned quickly that it wasn’t difficult to do. The masks were hideous and obviously held with pride. So, she insulted the false faces. She pointed out the shoddy craftsmanship of some, the poor color choices of another. When she suggested that the more grotesque masks were representative of the owner’s heart and soul, she was met with curious glances and heads tilted a few degrees off of ninety. It must’ve gone over their heads like missiles fired from a faulty silo.
The intensity of the abuse grew exponentially with every comeback Carmen offered. She remained calm among the storm. When the amount of voices grew too large to be separated, she turned her attention to the collective. As the masks swirled into a whirlwind of hateful speech and cracking voices, she critiqued what they had become, called out the missteps they had made, and informed them of what they could’ve been.
She suddenly found herself accomplishing a task that she was unaware belonged to her. Like a prophecy she had arrived, the great commentator. The red-headed judgement that had come to burn that one street down. That was the power she possessed within her, intensifying with every hobbled step she had ever taken.
For once in her life, she actually felt grateful for her width. Not like she wouldn’t be seen regardless as she strolled solitary down the center of The Veiled Main Street, But in some corner of her logic, she reasoned that those few extra inches on her stomach made her visible by at least one other person. She wanted to be seen, those behind the masks deserved to see their reckoning. Especially now that she had reached her zenith.
As she passed by a building decorated with rusted tin stars a door opened. It was outlined by neon lights, flickering like a back alley chapel. A few masked faces peeked out. They weren’t the twisted visages that Carmen had experienced. They were smooth ovals. The only thing that gave them any sort of character were the words sprawled across them. Some were white some were black, but whatever the color of the words were they were directly contrasted to the color of the mask.
Of course, the coverings made it impossible for them to give her an inviting glance. Yet, she interpreted their silence and gentle neck strains as one. She took a look down the rest of the distance she had yet to walk. The road would remain, she could take a detour and explore the world behind the shouting.
The interior was littered with others wearing similar masks. Being closer to them, Carmen could read the details of the words written across their “faces”. Some were stories or poems, while others were nonsensical ramblings that appeared to be some kind of indictment of the other words gracing their companions masks. Yet the words were the least striking sensation, that belonged to the silence.
Outside Carmen Could hear the last remnants of the insults that were supposed to in for her. It seemed that it really didn’t matter who the recipient was or if there was one at all. Inside though, the serpentine way the occupants moved, winding around each other, trying to get a better view of the words was the loudest noise to be heard.
Having just spent so much breath berating those who would do the same to her, Carmen was already catching her breath, preparing to speak again. Her mouth parted just a bit, revealing a nearly invisible black line with reddish tint. Before her vocal cords could vibrate she was hushed by one of those in the room. They pressed their finger to her lips, while an unknown member of the congregation slipped a mask and marker into her hands.
They all gathered around her, twitching to see how she’d adorn the blank space. It was in that moment that Carmen realized just how ridiculous existing was. Out there, on the street, when she had adversaries to conquer and stones and fiery arrows to survive through the ability to give the spark of life to her thoughts was easy. She could just scream and feel satisfied that even though her voice wouldn’t be understood, it’d be heard. But as she gripped the mask and the marker, with no choice but to be silent, those same images and cleverness were nowhere to be seen.
She was brave, or so she told herself. She could push through the fear of permanence, at least that’s how she described it. She looked at those who awaited her story, or whatever it would be she came up with. They were patient, yet anxious to critique. Carmen told herself that she couldn’t think of it like that though, they were an audience. She would perform for them, give them the greatest series of symbols that combined into words, that eventually turned to lines.
From somewhere she was unaware of, came a poem of a life. One that had somehow fallen off the path it wanted to tread. It told of a mysterious observer who wanted to go to this person and lead them back to the route that was so clearly there for them. The poem ended unresolved, but with a disclaimer that there was certainly more to this song. The responsibility for that culmination rested in the reader, that’s what the poem said, more or less.
With all the ceremony of a busboy depositing dirty dishes on the sink, she gave them her mask. Carmen felt fulfilled with the words she put to the smooth surface. Surely, her critics would feel the same. They’d be changed by the structure, moved by the rhyme, astounded with the talent residing within this newcomer. The mask was crushed under the feet of her judges.
One by one they took turns grinding the material into dust. Then they’d scoop up the bits and show them off to each other. The only praise that poem garnered was from the observers to the crushers. It went on, for far too long. Eventually enough of the dust had fallen through the floorboards, to forever be part of the building they were all in, that it could no longer be accumulated and shown off.
Carmen eyes grew wide as if to accommodate the immensity of an armageddon. Yet, before she could close the saucers in her face, she was handed another mask. They didn’t even give her the benefit of absorbing what had just happened in the sanctity of darkness.
There were many masks after the first one. Eventually she was allowed to wear one. Although the memory of those words could never compare to the ones of the first mask. There’d be times when she’d breathe deep, taking in more air than her lungs could possibly contain. Her imagination that there were still particles of that mask hiding somewhere, waiting for her to reclaim them.
She even once tried to recreate that poem from memory. But it was impossible. Her mind couldn’t create the same combination as before. It was clouded with the various metaphors and topics, that she had learned over time, that would allow her masks to remain intact. Everytime it came time for her to put words to a new blank surface, her hand became more concerned with how she could preserve the fragile face rather than how much she enjoyed the words themselves.
Once she was able to identify the ones around her by the tales they offered up that given week. She wasn’t completely sure, but had a general idea when she noticed how hard it was becoming to do that. Even when she looked at herself in a mirror or puddle of water it took a boring part of her brain that was concerned with logic and reason, to tell her that she was indeed, looking at herself.
Above all else though, she was horrifically aware that she was no longer a newcomer. She liked pretend that she had some sort of force field that kept her from being part of the inner workings of that building. She could just scribble on masks all day long and whenever anything else was asked of her, she’d rely on her short period of time with them to get her out of it. Most of the time it worked, but it’s effectiveness was wearing out quickly.
Eventually another person found themselves in that same room she did. They were given their first mask and a marker. Carmen took her position among her one time critics, as one of them. She told herself though, that as soon as she finished scraping the last grains of this person’s mask from her shoe, she’d leave.
She strolled down the last few feet of The Veiled Main Street, completely amused by the loudness of everything around her. The insults had changed somehow from when she first arrived. They were just as vicious, just as easily dismissed, but there was a difference to them. Perhaps the voices had become deeper.
Once she passed by the threshold of the street, she purposely found the first patch of grass she could. The best she could find was a small collection of yellowish reed looking things, but it wasn’t pavement or solid. With her she had one last blank mask and a marker. She knew what she wanted to put on the blankness, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember exactly how the story that she helped crush, went.