Endra’s Mask : A short story by Stephen Douglas Wright

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Endra’s Mask : A short story by Stephen Douglas Wright

From the shortlist of the first Short Story Competition organised by Bengaluru Review.

Sid had not arrived. Endra, unsmiling, glue-wet paper mache mask in hand, imagined the rain might have slowed him down, but she knew his penchant for getting lost and side-tracked, even on the simplest journey and for the most basic of tasks. She empathized. She, too, always found herself somewhere else than where she was told she ought to be. But her lostness was inner. Even eyes open, as she had them and had them before numerous times, she would imagine different worlds and possibilities, at the expense of the world before her. If attention were currency, she was almost fully banked on this wispy inner place. But Sid got distracted by the outside.

If there was a stray cat, he’d follow the stray cat, even if it made him an hour late for school. Endra imagined him tailing such a cat oblivious to the rain and his obligation to meet her. Endra liked cats too, and so if it were a cat, she may find herself forgiving. But until she found out whether his lateness was caused by a cat or not, she remained frustrated. But realizing she was frustrated, she tried to let this frustration go. She breathed in deeply and breathed out the thoughts of where he may be and what he may be doing, and reached for a new strip of glue-goopy newspaper to lay across her nearly finished mask.

In her twelve years of life, she had been no stranger to paper mache. She loved every art project she put herself to, but found unique solace in laying layer after layer of wet newspaper by hand, much in the way she imagined pyramid builders had done, though of course on a much larger scale, over a far longer period of time, and with limestone. But outside of proportion and the material used, was there much difference between pyramid building and paper mache?

As this thought came Endra realized she had made a mistake. The newspaper had become too thick around where the eye maybe. She smoothed it over with her thumb and forefinger, and laid a fresh piece of newspaper near the other eye to balance the weight and contour. She examined the mask, front and back. Better, she thought. Then she thought of thoughts. Better to let thoughts go, she thought. To concentrate. To finish the mask.

And then there was a knock on the door.

Endra heaved a sigh and stood up. Realizing the thick glue was on her hands, she could not use the coffee table on which she was making the mask to raise herself, so she stood without the aid of her hands and arms. The door knocked again. Endra looked around. There was no towel near. She didn’t know what to do. Of course, she should wash her hands, but there was

someone at the door. It was probably Sid. Though Sid had kept her waiting, she shouldn’t keep him waiting, especially in the rain. Could she open the door with just her wrists, with her fingers out, so the doorknob wouldn’t get messy? Or should she let him wait and bear the sieging sound of the knocking as she washed her hands?

The door knocked a third time. Louder, less patiently, it seemed to her. Aggressive even. Barbarians at the Roman gates she’d read about in a decades-old book on her parents’ shelf. But the impatience of the knocking might be in her head, as well as the brutal character of the sound. Sometimes sensations, such as knocking on a door, or a book shutting, or the howling of the wind, as it now howled outside with the rain, produced sharp emotional effects on her. She thought of this sensitivity in images. If she was yelled at for her forgetfulness, for instance, she would imagine the germs in her body like scared cartoons hiding along some corner of her veins. She wondered if veins had corners.

The third knock.

She wiped the glue on her shirt, quickly removing the glue from all over her hands, including between her fingers, and opened the door.

Sid stood stiffly in his yellow raincoat and black boots, water collected on him like morning dew on a sunflower. Or so Endra imagined.

“Are you gonna let me in?” “Sorry.”

“You need to move to let me in.” “Oh. Right.”

Endra moved out of the way and Sid entered the house, taking off his first boot by stepping on the heel of it with the other and lifting his leg, and only after lowering himself to remove the second boot by hand. The raincoat was next. As he took it off, he moved it completely inside out and began to shake the water off, flinging it all across the small foyer and onto Endra.

“You should shake it outside,” Endra said, as the water flew across the entrance to her home.

“A little late for that.” “Next time, please..”

“You looked weird a second ago.” “I was thinking.”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“I was thinking that you looked like a sunflower, in the morning, after the rain, when there’s water on it.”

“Dew?”

“Do what?”

“It’s called dew.” “What’s called dew?”

“Dew is called dew. The water, in the morning. It’s called dew. I think it has something to do with condensation. We learned about it in class.”

“I must’ve been sick that day.”

“No, you were there. Kind of. Where should I put this?”

Sid held out the inside-out raincoat. Endra took it in silence, opened the door to shake it out once more, and reached inside to put the coat back to outside-in, or outside-outside, or inside-inside, or inside-inside-outside-outside, or whatever the opposite of inside out maybe. As she thought of what this may be, she hung the raincoat on a hook.

Sid came into the living and sat down on the ground between the couch and the coffee table in the living room where Endra had been before his arrival, using the edge of the couch as a backrest. Endra followed him and sat on the couch. But then she got promptly up and walked to the kitchen, separated by an incomplete wall from the living room, to wash her hands. Having done so, she thought Sid might want to drink something warm after biking through the rain.

“Do you want tea?” Indra raised her voice as she entered the kitchen. “I’m twelve.”

“I’m twelve too.” “But you’re weird.” “Tea isn’t weird.”

“It is if you’re twelve.”

“Tea is the most common beverage on the planet.” “That would be water, Endra.”

“Water’s not a beverage.” “No tea then?”

“Yes, tea please.”

“I thought you were twelve.” “I’m almost 13.”

“So you’re not afraid of being weird?”

“I like being weird. Not for the sake of being weird. I just like what I like. And seeing as I’m almost 13, I think that yes, I might like some tea, thank you.”

“Is almost 13 a good age to start drinking tea?” “I don’t know, I’ll tell you after I’ve had some.”

The kettle was already on the stove. Endra removed it to pour in the water from the sink. She listened to the sound of the water hitting the metal bottom and, looking at the way the water mushroomed up from this bottom, thought of a geyser.

“Do you ever think about geysers?” Endra shouted from in front of the sink, waiting for the water to fill.

“Like old people?” “Those are geezers.”

“Well I don’t think of them either. What’s a geyser?” “It’s an eruption of water.”

“Like a water volcano.” “Kind of.”

Endra had filled the kettle, turned on the stovetop and left it to return to Sid, who was holding Endra’s still-wet mask.

“It’s not finished...” Endra said. She said it in a way in which she tried to communicate that Sid was crossing a boundary even he shouldn’t cross. Do, not, touch. Not yet. Not until it’s ready. But Sid didn’t pick up on that. He was focused only on the mask, holding it up and twirling it carefully with both hands.

“Is this for Halloween?” “Halloween is in October.”

“Solid detective work, Sherlock.” “What?”

“If I say something stupid, my dad always says that. Solid detective work, Sherlock.” “I’m not stupid.”

“Didn’t say you were. If anything, you’re quite correct. Halloween is indeed in October.” “Does your dad always say mean things?”

“They sound mean, but they’re nice.”

“I see where you get your manners from.”

“They were all out of them at the manners store, so I had to make do with what I had at home.”

Sid brought the mask down and the level of his navel and stared deeply into where the eyes would be, and then all across the surface of the mask. “I think it’ll help your look.” Sid smiled. Endra didn’t smile. She walked away to look out of the window where she could take in the rain on the street and Sid’s reflection and her own all at once.

“That was one of those things that I say that sounds mean, but it’s really nice.” Sid clarified.

Endra looked at the rain hitting against the window and dripping down. She followed a single drop and thought of how other things in nature might face the same inevitabilities as raindrop succumbing to gravity. But perhaps, thought isn’t the right word. She felt it, and in that feeling came the same knowledge such a thought might give.

“I’m moving to Florida.” Endra exhaled. “What’s in Florida?”

“Floridians.”

“Did your dad get a job?”

“My mom. At least that’s what she’s telling me.” “What they’re telling you?”

“That she got a job.”

“I mean, what aren’t they telling you.”

“I think they’re really moving because sometimes it’s so cold.” “Florida’s not cold.”

“It’s cold here. And hot. And then cold again. And then hot again. Some people like the seasons, some don’t. I don’t think my mom does.”

“And what about you?”

“This’ll be my last season here.” “When’ll you go?”

“End of summer. I don’t know what day.”

Sid sank into his spine. He played with the mask to mask this sudden drop in mood. It was contagious, and Endra began to fall inward, but then noticed the tea kettle had begun to hum. It must have been humming for a little while, and she just hasn’t heard. She shook off the change in mood in the way she shook off Sid’s raincoat and went to the kitchen, and pulled out two coffee mugs and poured the water in, then rifled through the drawers of the cupboard to find the boxes of teabags.

“Do they have tea in Florida?” “They drink it cold.”

“Because it’s hot?”

“Because they’re Floridians.” “That doesn’t make sense.”

“I think it does.”

Endra had put the tea bags in the mugs and stopped to take in the smell of the tea beginning to brew and the steam that rose from it, then left with mugs in hand for the living room.

“You better miss me.” Sid stated.

Endra set down the mugs on the coffee table, picked up the mask, and smoothed out some of the paper mache that had come loose from Sid’s handling. She, like Sid before, held it at her navel and looked into where the eyes would be. And then she looked into Sid’s eyes.

“I’m making this for you.”

“Oh. Thanks. What do I do with it?” “What do you mean?”

“Do I wear it? Do I hang it up?” “It’s my face.”

“You should probably keep your face. I think you’ll need it more than I will.”

“I made it by putting the newspaper and the glue on my face, so it’s the same shape. It’s so you can remember me and how my face looks.”

“I won’t forget your face. It’s very distinct.” “Are you calling me ugly?”

“Memorable.”

“Ugly and memorable aren’t mutually exclusive.” “Mutually exclusive?”

“It means they can’t be together.” “Like us.”

Hearing this, Endra shifted. She picked up the tea and held the mug to her lips. It was still too hot and not fully brewed, so she put it down.

“Still very hot.”

“Not like Florida tea.”

Endra forced herself to breathe. Sid could not follow. Endra, catching wind of Sid’s momentary lack of breath, sensed tension rising in her body from the level of her navel up into her shoulders and throughout her jaw. For a moment neither Sid nor Endra breathed. Then, a gust of uncaring wind shook the trees outside of the window, catching both of their attention. They watched the tree in silence, forgetting they forgot to breathe, and breathed to the tempo of the beyond the window.

The tree, a great pine, bent as gale after gale beset it. It seemed that the tree might dip so deeply as uproot. In fact, last year another tree in Endra’s neighborhood had been ripped up by the wind. It had fallen into a driveway, narrowly missing a car. But this tree stood firm, even in its bending and violent dancing.

“Looks like the tree is doing yoga.” The words ejected from Sid. “What’s yoga?” Endra asked.

“Yo-gotta be kidding me, asking what’s yoga.”

“So what is it?” “My mom does it.” “Why?”

“Gives her something to do with her hands between smoke breaks.” “Did she tell you that?”

“No, my dad told me that. I can’t tell if it sounds mean but it’s nice, or if it’s just mean.”

Sid blew on the tea to cool it and shoo away the steam that might besiege his nose. Then he took a sip. It was a small sip, because the tea was still very hot..

“Yoga looks like stretching. Mom says there’s a lot more to it, but to me it looks like stretching.”

“And the tree is stretching?” “Yes.”

“It looks to me like it’s being stretched.” “What’s the difference?”

“If you’re stretching, you’re doing it. If you’re being stretched, someone else is doing it.” “But if you’re stretching or if you’re stretched, you still end up stretched, like that tree. So does it really matter?”

Amused at himself, though not fully aware what he had just said, Sid braved another sip and Endra, noticing he did, followed. Though still hot, the tea had cooled slightly, and their tongues had acclimated to the temperature. They had met the tea in a middle between them and it, and drank it comfortably.

“Aren’t there different kinds of tea?” asked Sid. “I know there’s black and green.”

“And which is this? “Looks green to me.”

“Does it have a name, Or is it just green?” “Hold on.”

Endra left for the kitchen again, opened the cupboard from where she had retrieved the tea bags. She pulled out the box and scanned it for information.

“O-o-l-o-n-g. Oolong.” Endra read. “I like it.”

“It says it's from Taiwan.”

“Do you think Taiwan is like Florida?”

“If tea grows there, I imagine it must be hot.” “Why?”

“I don’t know. That’s just how I see it. I can’t imagine tea growing in the cold. Well, I mean, now I can. Now that I said that I couldn’t, I can. But before I said I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I still feel like I was right before.”

“About?”

“Tea only growing where it’s hot.” “We could look it up.”

Endra released a breath that showed her lack of interest in the idea of finding out the temperature that tea grows in. Sid put down his teacup and, shifting his whole body with his arms, positioned himself facing Endra. She did not follow, and sat as she was.

“I want to make a mask for you, too.” “That’s nice.”

“I don’t want you to forget how I look, either.”

“I could never forget how you look.”

For the first time that Endra had ever noticed, Sid’s eyes looked inward. They shifted down, in what must have been imagination or remembrance.

“When I was very little, I met my great-grandma a few times. I remember her, but it’s blurry. I don’t want you to be blurry.”

“Maybe we should take a picture.” “Pictures aren’t 3d.”

“So you want to remember how my face looks in 3d.” “And feels.”

“My face doesn’t feel like a paper mache mask.” “Can I touch your face?”

Endra paused and began to blush at his request. Trying to hide the surfacing redness, she shifted her head to look outside to see the bending tree, and then around the room she sat with Sid in, which someday soon she would leave when she moved to Florida. Then she looked to the tea, whose temperature had so quickly changed. The temperature of her face too had dropped as quickly as it rose. With her blush fading, she nodded to sid.

Sid closed his eyes, held out his hand, and felt Endra’s face. He ran first his palm, and then his thumb and pointer and middle fingers across it. And then his whole hand. Endra, eyes closed too, couldn’t describe the feeling. But if she could, she would describe it as first having been read like a map by a conquistador looking for El Dorado, and then, with the map memorized and El Dorado found, the feeling of both being and inhabiting a place remembered fondly, as one remembers a route one used to take to and from school, or as an adult around the block and to the grocery store, many years ago.

El Dorado and remembrance melted. All thought evaporated from each and between them blown away like rain clouds, or dew disappearing as the afternoon overcame the morning. What was left between Sid and Endra was only the touch of Sid’s hand, moving down from the small dip at the edge of Endra’s eye and up and down the high hill of her cheekbone, and finally to her chin. Then up and down again in this motion for a long moment as they breathed with the tempo of the wind beyond the window.

Without thought or word, Sid laid his head on Endra’s lap, wiggled his head and neck into comfort, and looked up at her. Endra smiled and looked out the window at the still-standing tree and the rain that had begun to clear. She thought the tea must be the perfect temperature now. And so, took a perfect sip, then picked up a fresh strip of glue-wet newspaper and laid it across Sid’s face. And she laid the newspaper in thoughtless silence, as Sid thought of visiting her in Florida long from when he was, and the joy of arriving to meet her.

***

Stephen Douglas Wright is a poet, playwright, and short-story writer from Michigan. He holds a bachelor of arts degree with majors in theater, philosophy, and political science from Aquinas College. His plays include The Ghost of Jimmy Dean, Garlands, Collisions, As Far as You Can Go, Rodgrod, Journey to the Stars, Asteria Rising, The Moon Will Rise and Grow, and Polarea and the Cloud Weaver. His poems have been published in Aquinas College’s Sampler, Michigan’s Best Emerging Poets 2019 (An Anthology), and Menteur Magazine. His short story Two Kites will be published by Harvard College Children’s Stories.

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