August 26, 2013 — The wine I sip is rich and red. It warms my insides. I sit at the big oak round table in my blog. I have turned the last page. I close the worn diary and stare into the flame of the tall, orange candle, ruminating. This is the diary of a woman. I do not know her name. The woman lived long ago. Her diary chronicles her mystifying relationship with a man named Sebastian. Clearly I need more to do than to sit entranced, venturing into the dark realms of thought to find the hermit down at the far end of the tunnel, holding an LED lantern. I stand, pinch out the flame and take my glass. The aroma of wax drifting off the spiral of smoke from the doused flame precedes me partway up the stairs to the second floor catwalks, dissipating as I climb the narrow winding wood staircase to the cupola above. On the way, I flick off flakes of white paint that fall onto the dark sleeve of my sweater as I brush against the walls.
At the top, I go over and look out the windows surveying the scene across the meadow. The day is late and an orange-gray mist rises off the stream, obscuring the earth-most region of the woods on the far bank.
The blue deer and her fawn, Batik, stand on the near bank. And, then – what? To the left, in the meadow along the bank, is a small herd of deer, all blue, some fawns, blue with white speckles. I am mesmerized. An uncommon herd. Where have all the blue deer come from?
I smell a nutmeggy aroma, hear a creak on the step. I turn. My heart stops beating. I stop breathing. I cannot swallow. In the shadows at the top of the staircase, it is a hunchback man with a frightening face and wild puce hair. In his lowered hand he wields a large gun and something smaller, transparent, with it.
“It’s me,” comes the subdued, muffled tone – my low-talker, Moriarty, the Phantom of My Blog. He is wearing a grotesque mask with wild puce hair attached. I take a long draft of wine.
“I saw your bottle of wine and carried it up with me,” he says.
“I thought it was a gun,” I say. I remember to breathe; my heart still pounds; I gulp more wine.
He lifts his banjo, by the shoulder strap, from his back, sprawls in the chaise lounge in the corner between the windows, removes his mask and lays the banjo across his knees.
“What, then, must we do?” he muses, wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand.
Balancing his banjo with one hand, he flips out the cork and pours wine into his glass with the other.
“Look at the herd of blue deer,” I say. “Did you see them? Extraordinary.”
“I know,” he says. “I put them there. I ordered them. They came on a Greyhound bus. I had to go meet it. They’re cardboard. I found them on Amazon. Made in China, I think.”
“And, why are you wearing a mask and that hideous hair? I ask. “It’s got, like, mint and mauve streaks in it.”
“Masquerade,” he says. “It’s all a façade.” He plucks a series of strings individually on his banjo and sings, “‘Masquerade, paper faces on parade. Masquerade. Look around, there’s another mask behind you.’ From my favorite musical, ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’” He plucks a final string, giving it tremolo. “Life in twenty-first century America. Thomas Jefferson would say, ‘I told you so.’ So would Barry Goldwater.”
Paper faces on parade
Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you
Masquerade! Every face a different shade
Masquerade! Look around, there’s another mask behind you
Masquerade! Burning glances, turning heads
Masquerade! Stop and stare at the sea of smiles around you
Masquerade! Grinning yellows, Spinning reds
“Before they sing the song in the musical, they say, ‘It’s a shame that phantom fellow isn’t here.’ That phantom fellow is always here. ‘Seething shadows breathing lies … leering satyrs peering eyes. … Take your turn, take a ride on the merry-go-round in an inhuman race’: The poetic gospel, the Alice in Wonderland side of religion. The Mad Tea-Party. Move around the table until no more clean plates remain. I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours to get.”
“Their mansions,” I say, “gilded on the backs of the other ninety-eight percent, the peasants whose only expectation is to reap the harvest of their hard work sowing the seeds in what’s become a field of clay. They may as well be pulling weeds from between the cracks in the pavement.”
“R speculated while he was trimming my hair, which he said looked perfect as it was, that ‘they soon will be coming to harvest our organs – then feed our withered intestines to the hungry buzzards.’”
He goes on: “What are the masqueraders afraid of? Why do they hide behind their false faces? Control. Politicians running for office, in office, or to impress a superior or potential investor, move with their spouses in lockstep, like a pair of carved wooden love doves appearing from the cuckoo clock door to tweet the hour. Shenanigans. It’s like a shell game. I offer you an example: They create a fantastic tableau, as I have with my cardboard blue deer out there, perfectly posed for the photo op.” He sweeps his hand across the swath of vacant domain before him, finishing with a flourishing gesture toward the bank of dusking windows.
“Just like Sebas—“ He feels his back pocket, he feels around in the chaise. “Where is it? I’ve lost it. I thought I had it.”
His wide-eyed expression, like that of a surprised cat, or round as doubloons in a treasury, bemuses me. “You mean Sebastian and the diary?”
“Yes – where…?”
“I found it in the chaise after you left the other night. It must have fallen out of your pocket.”
“Did you read it?”
“Yes. All of it. Whose is it? Where did you get it?”
“It’s Manon’s. I found it in a trunk full of stuff in the family attic in Arkansas. I think when they moved there, they just stuck a lot of stuff up in the attic and forgot about it. Manon was my great grandmother’s sister, my great great aunt.”
He pulls out his wallet. “Here. Here’s a picture of her.”
I take the small photo. In the cupola half-light and although the light and shadow of the image were faded, I can see: “She is very beautiful,” I say. I gaze at her a long time. Why do I feel as if I know her? Was it the diary? Yet, I felt a connection, even when I began reading her words. I hand it back to him.
“I sat down right there in the attic,” he says, “and started reading. The dust on the trunk made me sneeze, but I couldn’t stop reading. I didn’t sneeze on the diary. I became intrigued by her straightforwardness with him and in her prose, her sincerity. I asked my family if I could keep it. They said yes.”
I must admit, I have never seen my low-key Moriarty so passionate about something.
“What was the matter with Sebastian?” I ask. “Why did he—?”
“I’m hungry,” says Moriarty.
It is getting dark, and I haven’t brought a flashlight; I hope I don’t fall down the winding stairs.
“Let’s order out,” he says. “We’ll talk over some Chinese.”
He heads down the staircase and I follow.