The neighborhood boys busied themselves with faux yardwork. Even some of the girls came to watch. Younger siblings, too young to understand the interestedness by which their older selves were enraptured, played merrily beside their elders. A boy pretending to water the bushes accidentally sprayed himself in the face. “By god!” he said between droplets of water. He wiped at his eyes, glanced around mischievously, and lifted the black mask that covered his nose and mouth, to wipe away the water. Young bachelors looked sidelong and hoped their true aim was not discovered. When the throng, all within the safety of their own individual yards, was at its apex, the door opened.
The door, now ajar, was the brightest spot in the weary neighborhood. One boy with dark eyes that matched his dark mask could see two figures inside. They were two shadows gesticulating beyond the doorway’s entrance. He, along with the entire neighborhood, waited with bated breath for the event which brought at least some joy to their dismal lives.
“It’s a sickness.” Said one inconspicuous boy.
“Nah I can see. It ain’t that.” The cause of so much amazement may appear to be slight: Ms. Elizabeth Hooper, a woman of about thirty, emerged from the light. She wore a golden sundress that hung above her knees. Held by a loose rope was the little shaggy dog, which was the envy of the neighborhood, since Elizabeth would occasionally stoop down to shower the little beast with kisses. Her neighbors believed her hair was mystical; it would change color depending on the season. In winter it was more lightly colored, during the summer it rivaled the sun for its golden hue. As one, the eyeballs of every boy within sight moved from her feet up to her face; upon reaching her mouth there was a collective gasp. She wore no mask. To look on her face was like staring at the sun. It had been years since the implementation of periodic quarantines and enforced mask mandates. No one in the neighborhood had seen her face, but through the medium of a photograph.
The brightness of her bare face caused the entire congregation of boys and girls to bring their hands to their masks; indeed, each inhaled the smell of the cloth and wondered what it must feel like to walk about naked. Her bareness gave a darkened aspect to all their existence.
Elizabeth walked at a measured pace; she swayed like a boat at sea. Her little dog emulated the movement. The pair were two beings of natural splendor. It was the walk typical of women who relish in the observation of others. As she passed by a house she turned her face toward the young boy who had exited his domicile for this express purpose. She smiled. So long had it been since this boy had seen a stranger smile at him that he squealed in bewilderment and ran inside the house.
After Elizabeth vanished around a corner, to bring her brightness to the next block of young people, everyone began babbling like a brook. Too many voices together grew louder in ascending perpetuity; they yelled to be heard through their masks, then they yelled louder to be heard above the din of everyone else.
“She must have gone insane.”
“She must have gone insane!”
“They’ll take her from us.”
“I don’t like it. Sure she’s beautiful but who the hell does she think she is endangering the community?” Said a teenager with pockmarks on his face and a sagging belly that would put a middle aged alcoholic to shame
“Our beauty has gone mad.”
Thus spread rumors of all types. They trailed behind Elizabeth like drops of blood from a wounded animal. No inhabitant of the homes she passed could refrain from lifting their blinds to peer through windows; married women tsked as their husbands peeped; old widows ground their teeth in horrified anger. Elizabeth had the effect of a rolling earthquake; there was a general bustle, a rustling of the Earth as people moved, and then a heavy shuffling of feet as they tried to get a better view. She pretended not to notice. Whenever she saw someone’s masked visage emerging behind a window or other darkened area, she would smile at them. As if a flashlight pierced through them, each scattered like rats.
Once, turning a corner, Elizabeth swished her hips more than usual and she glanced back toward her onlookers, bared face, and winked. The effect was catastrophic. Men blinked out of existence. Women called friends. The self-righteous dialed the emergency number.
Such was the effect on the neighborhood of a young woman walking her dog. Yet, perhaps the countenances of all the world was as fearful a sight to Elizabeth, as her bare face was to the world.
Ms. Hooper had the reputation of a beautiful woman, but not a world-class one. She strove to win the hearts of her admirers from her benevolent spirit as much as her physical appearance. Nevertheless, she relished her beauty, spiritual or otherwise. Though, prior to the quarantine, she had never driven most men mad with insatiable desire, she rather inspired an admiration that percolated like a light rain on thick soil. Some of her female peers could strike like thunder in the hearts of any man; Elizabeth’s beauty was more akin to a build-up of many small electrical sparks. The removal of the cloth covering had a palpitating effect on her congregations of admirers, however. There was something either innate in her movement, or in the imagination of her viewers, which made her beauty grip their hearts more strongly than ever before. The subject had reference to secret selfish sin. The revelation of her face held a mystery to the townspeople far worse than the realization that one was hiding one’s own face. Her bareface created a spotlight in the consciousness of everyone around her; she was that inner reproach, always Omnipresent, which can detect one's true motives. A subtle power emanated from her. Every neighbor who saw Elizabeth, from the most innocent girl to the hardiest man, felt as if she had unmasked their very souls, by showing her own. And what was found behind each of their masks was the putridity of fearful deeds and thoughts. Many mouths behind imprisoned cloth stood agape. There was nothing terrible in the beauty and her dog; at least no visible violence; and yet with every sway of her hips and every gladsome glance, the observers quaked. Hand in hand with their awe came their envy. So sensible to some hidden evil in themselves, they longed to see a rope wrapped tightly around the youthful beauty.
After Elizabeth returned to her home, and the neighborhood was freed from the clutches of her bareness, a collective memory touched each of the observers. It was a fancy, long forgotten, like a romanticized image of the wild west. Each in their own unique vision, but united in theme: they saw a world of beauty, joy, smiling faces, warm embraces, firm handshakes, love connections, missed opportunities, new friendships, random conversations, crying shoulders, dull talk, smell of perfume, the bliss of a shared artistic experience, clinking glasses, the sound of many naked voices rising in Hallelujah, the echoing laughter of children playing on the green grass, shared meals, illicit affairs, spilled food, brushing against strangers, enticing smells, shared secret smiles, and the pleasure of witnessing that rare radiance which emanates from some magnificently beautiful human faces. As one the neighborhood shook the memory out of their rusty minds, and all glared in the direction of Elizabeth Hooper’s house. “Irresponsible.” “How hateful she is.” “My father died! How dare she.” Wiser minds shook their sagacious heads and whispered condolences.
“How strange,” said one lady to her husband. “That a simple act as removing a mask should shade such a young beauty.” “Something surely is amiss with Ms. Hooper’s mind. Her rebellion can’t last long.” Observed the husband, a respected physician. “More strange to me is the mystery behind her action. Even to a rational man as myself, I cannot fathom what would cause such a promising young woman to act such. The bareface throws its influence over her whole person, and makes her a leper. Do you not see a plagued one?” “I do. And I would not sit alone with that woman for anything. I wonder how she can live with herself?” Later that night, Elizabeth was seen under similar circumstances. She was waiting outside a restaurant. A masked man stood near her, but made no attempt to speak with her. Her hair shone darker in the moonlight. A black dress pulled around her ribs and fit to her form. The audience began by inspecting her body and ended by glaring at her exposed nose and her sensual mouth. Her smile had no effect on the onlookers except to increase their disdain. Now, in a crowd, a mask was more appropriate. Yet, her bare face was a slap to everyone’s obscured one. Ms. Hooper passed beneath the threshold of outer to inner domain, while every covered head ceased its muffled murmuring and turned toward her. They shuddered like the convulsions of dying men, each patron sought the eyes of the others to determine their own inner self-righteousness.
One woman with short cropped hair, which was fluffed up in the back like a rooster, said to her female companion, “You’re seeing this right? Tell me you’re seeing this. I’m not having visions again am I?”
“Not at all.” Her friend replied in trembling ecstasy. “She actually thinks she can just waltz up in here and infect us all with her diseases. Whore!” She said loud enough to be heard.
A man in a black suit that matched his silk mask glided toward Elizabeth’s table. His eyes spoke volumes, as he looked her over.
“May I offer you a complimentary face mask? You seem to have lost yours.” “No, thank you.” She said.
Her voice was soft like a whisper from a lover, and yet it carried to all the eager ears in the establishment. Some quaked in their boots. Many felt a tinge of desire, which was quickly quenched by their nearest neighbors, who each indignantly indicted the woman.
“Ma’am, you must wear a mask in this establishment.” “Thank you but I refuse. Will you not serve me without one?” “We will not.” “Then I will go.” She spoke with the conviction of one who knew the outcome but wished the experience nonetheless. Head held high, she smiled at all her onlookers. The usual effect of her smile now bounced off the heavy shield barring these darkened souls from experiencing the pleasures she had to offer.
As she was departing the building, she caught a glance of a faraway mirror. It projected a painting of exquisite horror. Amidst the room were oval heads two eyes each and a black maw in the center of each face. It was her fancy, of course, but she could swear that each black hole possessed sharp fangs. They were all hungrily facing a beautiful young woman. It took her a moment to realize she was that woman. The monstrous visages all looked alike, differing only in hair length and color. Their eyes all glowered. Eyebrows scrunched in utter hatred. For the first time, Elizabeth’s smile faltered. Her lips grew white. Her cheeks darkened. She rushed into the darkness of night—for the earth too had on its black mask as it swallowed her whole.
The next day, the entire town talked of nothing else but Elizabeth Hooper’s mysterious behavior. They talked of little else for little else had they to talk about. Though the traditional back fence gossip was forbidden, such murmurings could be expressed in the neverland of their phones. It became the hot button issue of the region, and had spread from angry fingertip to angry fingertip as far and wide as the ephemeral land of disappearing letters could reach.
Children shared pictures to friends and giggled. One little imp emulated the woman and was immediately seized by a wrathful parent and slapped.
Not a one among the impertinent people had the courage to ask the question of Ms. Hooper, why won’t you wear a mask? She had always been a most approachable beauty, unlike many other women of her stature. Her character had never once been tarnished. Everyone who knew her thought her even more intelligent than she was beautiful. Yet this slight action was a black scar upon her. More days went by. Whenever she was offered a mask, she simply and politely refused saying “No thank you.” The boys stopped watching her walk her dog. Young men no longer wanted to jog at the same time she did. Restaurants would not allow her near their establishment. The delivery services dropped her food at the sidewalk and fled the scene. Always as she walked about was she alone and maskless. Yet, this freely open visage, to the imaginations of the townspeople, veiled an ugly and vicious heart beneath her bosom. She became a symbol of hatred toward others.
One day, a collection of the leading gossips decided to accost the woman in hopes of saving her. In their goodness, they would simply ask her to wear a mask. Upon leaving her house to walk her dog, Elizabeth was greeted by three melancholy women standing in the center of the street. They were perfectly spaced six feet apart, like man-made columns bursting from the town’s fiery underbelly. Elizabeth was startled, but smiled nonetheless. After the typical niceties, the three women’s eyes wrinkled as though in a smile; this was a trick the townspeople had learned. People could not see a smile unless the eyes crinkled. Where in the past it was easy to lie with the mouth, now it became popular to lie with the eye. Elizabeth remained courteous, but silent. The topic, it might be supposed, was obvious enough. There were the three masked women and the one bare face. Elizabeth revealed no emotion. Her lips lay placidly. Her nose and eyes scrunched not. The calm unnerved the three women. The barefaced woman once again served to reinforce their own masked faces. The glasses of one woman fogged up. Another’s nose began to itch, but she was forced by custom to resist. Finally, the trio departed, speechless at how defeat could come from such a young and isolated woman. The matter must be settled by a larger contingent of concerned citizens. The secret machinations of a terrible society were aimed at the young beauty.
There was one citizen unaffected by the new power of the barefaced woman. When the righteous trio had returned defeated, he with calm energy of high character, determined to re-clothe the beautiful naked woman. More dark were Ms. Hooper's circumstances than she knew. As her dear friend and former lover, it should be his privilege to fix whatever is causing her irresponsible behavior.
At his visit, and although separated by a large table and one black cloth, he could not resist staring at her mouth. He did not wish to but his mind wandered to previous pleasures. Strength returning, he resolved to confront her.
Rick made his task much easier by direct simplicity. He smiled beneath his mask, but his eyes did not crinkle, so his partner knew it not. “Well I’m much more satisfied than before. There is nothing terrible about you at all. Same Liz I’ve always known. Come on, let’s get you a mask that reflects your personality. It’ll be one that is easy to breath in while being protective to you and the community.”
Elizabeth now smiled. Rick had almost forgotten what it felt like when she gazed into your eyes and her thick lips opened in a curvaceous invitation. Pleasure palaces of kings, he thought.
“I will never again wear a mask. Not until I am old and ugly and have reason to hide my face.” “It’s not to hide your face but to protect you and others from disease.” “Nevertheless.”
“People have died. Lots of them!”
“I will never under any circumstances obscure my face. We mustn’t destroy the potential for life because of a fear of death. That idea is an infection far worse than any plague. Death is guaranteed, but life isn’t.” “If everyone thought that way, many more people would die.” “And even more would live.” “You’re hiding something Liz. What else is going on?” “Me? Hiding? Here. I will expose even more of myself. I choose to refuse a mask, because I know that I’m beautiful. When I smile it brings pleasure to everyone I meet. I want the world to see my face. Live and in the flesh. To be yearned for and touched. Benevolence takes effort, Rick. I see everyone sliding into a black meanness. It’s a pit. My beauty, such as it is, at least can have a chance to shine through all the dark clouds obscuring all of your faces. This life is beautiful. I love it. Flaws and all. And I’m in love with mankind. Everyone I meet. I wish I could make love with everyone! Every single person. At least I had felt that way. Refusing to wear this silly barrier has nothing to do with any denials of the dangers to my body and everything to do with the dangers to my soul. Living in a veiled world is not a world worth living in. Place me on an island with apes and a coconut tree. But I’ll want Man! I want him naked and beautiful in all his majestic splendor.” “You’ll be all alone.” He looked down at her, for he had unconsciously stood from his chair. For several moments he appeared lost in thought. His eyes moved from Elizabeth’s naked face to a window where awaited the town and its inhabitants. He considered what new methods might be tried to bring his former lover to his side, and yet this obstinate behavior had the tenor and conviction of a madman. In an instant, there was a new feeling that replaced his longing: he looked down at her, his eyes above the black cloth glaring into her, when with not a word more, he buzzed past her and toward the door.
Elizabeth hung her head. She whispered before he left. “Will you make me do this alone? Stay! There will be nothing hidden between the two of us. You don’t know how lonely I’ve been. I’m frightened even at the sea of monstrous venomous faces surrounding me and closing all round me. Do not leave me to them.” “Wear the mask at least on occasion.”
Without speaking more, the door slammed behind Rick, announcing his answer to her and the world. She walked to the door, opened it to watch him leave. The smile that spread on her face did not bring light and pleasure; it was a melancholy one. To think, only a thin piece of fabric kept them apart.
For a time, all attempts to mask Elizabeth Hooper ceased. Some few neighbors believed she was a rebellious spirit, and they went about their business. Many other neighbors, those who claimed a superiority to any prejudice, reckoned she was a menace to the community. Worse, she was a plague rat living among them. She became the town boogie man. The boys no longer waited with hopeful anticipation for a gust of wind as Ms. Hooper walked by in one of her summer dresses. Photographers no longer came by to capture her beauty. Men stopped calling. To Elizabeth the savage darkness enclosed around her tighter everyday. Whenever someone caught a common cold, it was the work of Ms. Hooper. Someone died and Ms. Hooper was blamed. It no longer mattered how the person died: disease, virus, car accident, gunshot. She was to blame for all of society’s ills. She became the source of every preternatural horror known to primitives and moderns. In truth, the physical toll became apparent. Elizabeth was aging faster than nature would have permitted. In this manner, Elizabeth passed several weeks.
Elizabeth was a creature of the light and the dark bore down upon her. One night, while out for a run, she stopped at the end of a long sad lane. Above, hanging in the sky was a clock. It beat to the rhythm of a body too big to comprehend. She stood still and shut out the sound. Far away, she heard an uninterrupted cry climb over both tree and house. She shuddered. All around her she heard the bells and whistles of an enormous metal beast. The houses were but its skin; the trees its hair; the luminescent clock its all-seeing eye. She turned in horror to find her way home when she stumbled upon a crowd of masked monsters. She wanted to scream. They all turned to look on her nakedness. She felt vulnerable, more so than ever in her life. She was a woodland mouse caught in a turbine. Her beauty was no armor; her charm evaporated; her wit dulled. The seething mass of black gaping maw floating on oval heads tilted and all began chattering at once.
“Put on a mask!”
“Not so hot now.” “My father died!”
“People are sick.” “Just put on a damn mask!” “Evil wench.”
The first object to hit her was a light clump of dirt. Elizabeth’s body shut down. The masked heads surrounded her. Her arms rose. The next object that hit her was a rock. It broke a tooth and split her pretty mouth. Blood dripped from her lips and down her chin and fell in globs on her bosom. “Mask the bitch up.” Elizabeth regained her composure and stood as tall as she could. She stared through each of them. For a moment they flinched. A fat woman with stringy hair screeched at Elizabeth’s face like a rabid animal roaring.
“My father died!” She screamed and then removed her own mask to spit on Elizabeth, but missed, hitting a fellow in the eye.
“You whore” someone said and then punched Elizabeth in the face. She fell to the ground. The group was all hair and nail and leg and fist smashing into the barefaced woman’s body. She became crushed deep into the concrete. Soon there was little remaining of the once beautiful young woman, but a mass of blood and hair and fingernails. And, in the center of her face was the dark black hole—the abyss upon which the whole world had fallen.