The Devil’s Mask by Khanh Ha

The stable boy peered up from the saddle when the little master made a grunt in his throat. Something was coming. Out in the sun, a white-furred monkey stood looking in. After a while it waddled in like an out-of-shape old man and, once past the sun glare, and inside the cool dark, its fur looked as white as the rice flour. It usually came when the little master was in the barn.

Now it sat crouched just like the little master, only smaller and wrinkle-faced like a prematurely aged child. The little master wore a little brass bell on a neck string; before he came hopping in, never walking like a normal human, the stable boy could tell who was coming. They dressed him always in a bright colored outfit, firecracker red this morning for his shirt and white shorts. If he strayed from the house even after dark, the bright colors would help them find him. Now he sat on the bed of cut hemp, watching the boy clean the saddle leather, his fevered eyes, velvety black; he sniffed the oil the boy had just washed the leather with. The boy watched him with wary eyes as he smoothed the saddle with a clean rag. Her sweat, the horse’s, the leather old smell and the oil smell from the polished brass buckles.

A noise at the door. The boy looked up. She was walking in, her boots made no sound on the thick hemp bedding. There you are, she said.

Ma’am, he said.

I thought this was where I would find him, she said with a cheerful smile as she glanced down at the little master, still half-crouched. She then stroked the monkey’s balding head, it lifted up its little face to her, scratching its cheek with its long hairy fingers. In the stall the stallion neighed softly.

He knows you’re here, the boy said.

I know, she said. What’s wrong with my strap?

The horse’d been rubbing it against the fence post. It got ripped the other day.

She glanced down at the torn strap on the trestle table. Does it take long to fix that?

Not really.

I appreciate that. She brushed back the hair on her forehead. I have to take him in now for his medication.

What kind of medication?

Keeps him from being hyperactive.

He seems calm.

This monkey keeps him calm. She took the monkey’s pink palm and laid it on the back of her hand. If he’s here by himself, he’ll likely make it hard for you to work.

I know. The boy hung his head to one side, eyeing the little master. How old is he now?

Fifteen.

He’s a big boned kid.

He can be as soft as a rabbit or out of control like a mad bull. I couldn’t handle him like I used to. She took a deep breath. A faint smell hung in the high-ceilinged barn. This earthly smell of horse’s sweat and hair, of leather and oil, of cut hemp and hay.

He could sense distress in her tone. You mean physically restraining him? he said.

She nodded. It takes two people now to hold him down. When that happens, I prefer men. She fell silent as she lay her eyes on him. He’s awfully strong.

The boy drew imagined lines on the leather strap with the awl’s tip. Will be harder when he gets older, he said. What’ll happen then?

I’ve thought about that. She reached down to stop both the little master and the monkey from grabbing the oil can on the table at the same time. I must have a plan. It was different when he was small. But I can’t wish that on him. To stay small forever, even if I could.

What d’you mean?

He has to grow and mature. We all do. She smiled thinly, shaking her head at the little master. Then she made a sign to get his attention and he rose to his feet. Standing, he was as tall as she, his long arms were big in the wrist, thick in the upper arm. He followed her out of the stable, walking every three steps and then hopping. The monkey hopped on its all fours after him and the little master, glancing back and shrieking, hopped away now from her and the monkey. When they reached the gravel path, going down the slope, the monkey stopped, sitting back on its haunches, hands on the ground, watching them going up to the veranda. After a while it turned around and bounced across the grassy field toward the wooded hills beyond.

In the quiet blared a shrill voice from a loudspeaker, mounted on the cab’s top of a three-wheeled Lambretta as it made its way down the broken road that went around the foot of the hill. The patina-green Lambretta was weighed down with piles of household goods and an array of trappings. The voice called out, Anyone in need? Anything broke? Sell and fix right here on the spot, on the spot. The little three wheeler chugged along, sounding out the announcement between short respites. Its clamor spooked the dogs in the neighborhood along the road and suddenly they began to yelp and howl; it rose to the hilltop.

Sitting by himself at a dining table by the side French doors, the little master plugged his ears and howled. Soon a maid came running out. Hush, she said. Hush now. The little master screwed his eyes shut, shaking his head in frenzy. His wailing got louder till the maid clamped his mouth with her hand and he bit her; she slapped him on the side of the head, that set him bawling again and tears filmed his burning eyes. Another maid, older than the first, hurried out from the interior. You keep quiet, you hear, keep it down, she said, stroking his back and pressing her cheek against his face. Immediately she flinched, he banged his head against her face so hard she dropped to her knees. Devil you, she screamed. The shrill loudspeaker voice blasted again, and again drew the dogs into a barking frenzy. Now the little master’s body shook in fright and he let out a mournful bawl. Helpless, the two women stood and watched, one rubbing her bitten finger, the other feeling her nose from the wallop. From upstairs came a voice to chill them, Bring him up here!

The women started, they each tried to pull the little master up out of his chair but he pushed them away. They closed back in, this time locking their arms under his. They raised him. He kicked out his legs, knocking the cherry wood table sideways, and the glass of water and the box of medicine fell to the floor. The sound of broken glass froze the women. They could hear the master’s hacking cough right above them.

Go get Chung, the older maid said.

He’s out in the field.

Get Ba.

The younger maid ran back into the dim corridor. Left alone, the older stood listening to the little master’s bawling in the racket caused by the Lambretta’s loudspeaker and the dogs. The hacking cough stopped, the voice again came down, Get him up here!

Yessir, the older woman glanced up at the presence from above. Ba will be here shortly. I’m terribly sorry, sir.

She walked around the little master in her bare feet, inspecting the shards of glass on the wood floor, a puddle of water had collected by a leg of the table. In the puddle the box of medicine lay soaked. She bent close to the little master’s tear-stained face. Stop now, she said. You don’t want to go up there, or do you? She pulled back just as he flung out his arm, fist clenched, to hit her. She grappled with his arm; he spat at her. It hit her in the chest. Then the outside racket had him cover his ears again. He bawled. The older maid was about to hush him with her hand over his mouth when the younger returned with a middle-aged man. Ba, the chauffeur, walked up to the little master, bent and slipped his arms under the little master’s. His hands locked, he stood the little master up while the maids looked on. He dragged him to the staircase, up the steps, and the maids followed, each giving a little push in the back. The wailing grew louder as the little master tried to free himself from such restraint. He pulled back his head and spat in the chauffeur’s face. The man quickly turned his face away, let the spit land on the side of his neck. The younger maid reached in with her hand and fastened the little master’s mouth, on the landing the chauffeur paused, firmed his hold and then stepped backwards up the stairs. Bellowing, the little master lifted his face at the multi-tiered chandelier where sunlight coming through the high window sparkled in the crystal teardrops.

They reached the top step; when he saw the master sitting in the wheelchair in his white shirt and white trousers, the little master shot out his arm and grabbed the handrail's ornamental cap. Quickly the older maid peeled the fingers that grasped it, then shoved both of them toward the man in the wheelchair. Huffing, the chauffeur dragged the manikin in his arms till he reached the wheelchair’s footrest. As soon as he released him, the chauffeur pushed the bawling creature, by the shoulders, down to his knees. The little master obliged, his wailing now just moans. As though they knew what to expect, the three servants stepped back, none leaving the scene, as the master wheeled the chair back just a few feet, reached down below the seat to lock the wheels. From his other hand he pulled a stingray’s tail whip, dried looking and black, its butt leather wrapped. Outside the clamoring was subsiding, the dogs whimpering now and then, the loudspeaker voice now a distant echo like a faintly harsh cry.

The first lash caught the little master across the shoulder. His eyes opened wide as though he were shocked by the pain. He raised himself up on his arms, letting out an inarticulate, angry cry. The second again on his arm, he sinking back down on his folded legs. He popped back up, shaking his head like a crazed animal, his face red, eyes feverish, and the sound he made became garbled. The whip cut the sound and caught him on an outstretched arm. He left that pleading posture and lunged to the wheelchair, grabbed the swing-out footrest, shaking it like he’d gone out of his mind and, before the master could kick him, the chauffeur broke the hysterical critter’s grip, forcing him, at the master’s hand signal, face down on the floor. He barely stepped out of the way when the whip cracked across the little master’s back. It came down repeatedly. The little master shrieked defiance, banging his fists on the floor, trying to sit back up only to be pushed down by the chauffeur. Then the master gasped, stopped by a sudden cough. On the floor the little master whimpered, propping himself on his arms, his face tear stained.

At the master’s wave of dismissal, the servants each had a part of the little master as they got him off the floor into the primate’s upright posture. His shorts were wet on the front and urine was running down the sides of his legs. He never stopped whimpering while the chauffeur dragged him back downstairs. The two maids flanked them going down the steps like taking back the damaged goods.



The master wheeled himself out to the veranda, holding the bamboo bird cage in his lap. It was early morning, the hillside wet from the morning dew. He held the cage up above the railing so the myna could come see out to the ocean, where the wind combed the blue-green water and blew white-crested breakers into a gray mist.

Don’t you love such a sight, he said.

The myna twittered.

He set the cage on the handrail. The amber-hued bamboo was warm looking atop the rail tiles in cool white. He leaned back in the chair, watching the road that wound around the foot of the hill. A gust of wind brought a dark, dry odor of thunder mushrooms. Along the broken road a boy was going from one bamboo clump to the next, picking mushrooms. They grew in patches, white-capped and long-stemmed, dotting the roadside. The first time coming upon them during their evening walk she asked him what they were. Soon she knew mushrooms by their shapes, the Shiitake, the wood ears, the straw mushroom; her mind absorbed things like a sponge. It seemed a long time now when he thought back four years to this day.

In the cage, the myna cocked its head to look at him. Those round, intense eyes would blink each time he spoke to it. White wing-tipped, yellow-legged, it had grown to the size of his hand in a year since she had rescued it, a baby bird she had found on the ground. At four months old, its turmeric-yellow beak turned red. One day he took it out of the cage, held open its yellow-tipped beak and snipped the point of its tongue. In the early days, it croaked out broken words, but soon its intelligence and quick ​mimicry of human voices surprised him.

Now he coughed and brought his fist to his mouth, coughed again into it. The bird tipped its head at him in its crowlike attitude.

Where’s Ly? he asked.

Ly. The bird bobbed its head three times. Horseback riding, horseback riding.

No, Ly sleeping. What the horsie say?

The myna neighed.

What the cat say?

The myna mewed.

He watched it with interest. The myna hopped down to a lower perch and drank from the water porcelain cup. Then it stood fluffing its feathers, bobbing its head, and mewed.

The cat is outside, he said, shaking his head. I don’t think you want him here.

The myna watched him, tilting its head to one side. What, it said.

I think you should leave the cat alone for your own sake. Don’t call him. Call the horsie.

The myna neighed. Good horse, good horse, it chirped then made several clicks with its tongue. What, it said.

I think you’re a smart bird.

So smart, it squawked, bobbing its head.

He grinned. Can you call Ly?

The myna watched him.

Where’s Ly? Call Ly.

The bird fluffed its feathers and chirped Ly Ly Ly Ly Ly. Then it nodded and mewed. He said, Hush, hush. You love Ly?

The myna clicked its tongue. So sweet, it said. Ly so sweet.

Are you hungry? Would you like some berries?

He took a pinch of raspberries from his shirt pocket, opened the cage and dropped them in the food cup. There, he said. Aren’t they yummy?

The myna started pecking away at the berries. Yummy, yummy.

Yes, I know. Aren’t they sweet?

Sweet. Ly so sweet.

Yes, she is. You like everything she feeds you, eh?

He watched the bird eat the berries, now and then bobbing its head as though it were on a spring. He liked to listen to its clear, ringing voice that carried far when it whistled. But it stopped its whistling habit so it could mimic human voices, except when it began to mimic the cat. Then its voice rose to such a high pitch that it grated on his nerves. Once it could talk, it never ceased. At night she hung the cage in the corridor and covered it with a black cloth so it wouldn’t be tempted. One night while she was taking a bath, the bedroom door closed, a maid came up with his herbal medicine. She knocked. Before he could get out of bed and into the wheelchair, he heard the bird out in the hallway, Open the door, open the door.


*


He came out of his doze and saw her lift the cage from the veranda’s railing. She pushed his chair back into the coolness of their bedroom; she parked his chair so he could sit looking out over the white railing to the blue-gray horizon, now blushing a rose hue. The birdcage in hand, she went out to the hallway and when she came back, empty handed, she locked the bedroom door, picked up a bottle of baby oil and knelt down in front of the wheelchair’s footrest.

I saw that you already fed him, she said, placing the bottle on the floor, and pulled down his trousers by the waistband.

Yes. He was calling for you to feed him. He pushed himself up slightly, so she could slip his trousers past his buttocks. She touched the felt heat pad that covered his pubes and genitals. The heat had mostly gone from it. Hold it, she said and placed the pad in his lap. The skin of his pubis felt warm against her palm. His penis felt warm too, resting limp and curved like a crooked finger. She squeezed a few drops of oil into her palm, lemon fragrant and cool, smoothed the length of his penis with her palm. Circling her thumb and forefinger round the base of it, she began to push her fingers upward the shaft, to the glans. She stopped, holding the grip momentarily, returned her fingers to the base of the penis and started over. The heat from the pad had made the flesh firm, the skin soft and oiled, so she did not have to labor with her gripping stroke.

A raspy cough came from the hallway. It sounded like his cough. Sometimes it confused her to think that he was awake, for the myna was the incarnation of every animate soul whose voice or sound had ever come to its hearing. His hand now came to rest on her shoulder, squeezing it through the soft cotton bathrobe still damp with her body’s wetness. His cheeks hollowed as he sucked in his breath while stroking the side of her neck, his fingers bone-dry. Yet the fever in him never made a difference, even with her patient strokes, long and gripping, to force blood into the organ, which had been a daily routine, once in the early morning and again before bedtime, lasting each time fifteen minutes, till her fingers grew so tired she had to switch hands. Not even a maid was allowed to know, much less to perform the exercise in her absence as a chore to cure his dysfunction.


*


At sunset the chauffeured car brought her back from the town. Behind the hill the sunset reddened the sky over it and the lighthouse, ocher yellow and pencil thin, peeked above the dip of the hill.

Surrounding the bungalow where servants, maids, and the stable boy stayed were sea almond trees, old, vase-shaped crowns dense and dark with leathery broad leaves now losing their last luster in the evening dark. Someday, she thought, she’d learn how to paint, and the first thing she’d paint was the autumnal leaf colors of sea almond. Copper, red, yellow. The maroon of the fruit. The dark red of the leaves. Before they all fell.

It was quiet in the house. She looked at herself in the wall mirror. Her image in the black-and-white plaid skirt behind the flower vase. In the vase the water smelled fresh. The maid must have changed it in the afternoon, she thought. One dining table’s end chair was not pushed in like the rest, it was turned out to the alcove, which was lit dimly with its recessed light. In a glimpse, she thought the chair was a photograph in muted honey-colored satinwood, the curved legs flowing gracefully from the shape of the chair. She walked across the bamboo floor, hearing only the sound of her heels, stopping near the chair to pick up a bird feather, fluffy and purplish black. She set the chair back in its usual solemn position, thinking how the myna’s feather had gotten here. By the alcove, she held the feather under the recessed light. It was indeed the myna’s. Standing alone in the alcove was a Kangxi antique china vase. Ancient, permanent, defying time.

As she mounted the stair steps, she remarked the unusual quiet in the house. Halfway up, she expected the myna to greet her, Hello Ly. But she heard nothing. The bird cage wasn’t in the hallway at its normal spot. He must have taken it with him to the veranda, she thought.

Coming through their bedroom she saw him out on the veranda, in the wheelchair, his back toward her. There was no bird cage with him that she could see. She closed the screen door behind her. The wind was warm, rustling the leaves, dark and glittering with fireflies. The sea cadenced with the sound of waves. His white shirt and the white railing shimmered. He didn’t look up at her as she came to his side.

Who took the bird cage? she said, looking down at him.

There isn’t one anymore, he said, still not looking at her.

What happened?

He took it downstairs. Played with it. Made the bird call out to the cat. That vicious cat you allowed him to keep in his room. When the cat came, he opened the cage door.

She remembered the myna’s feather.

The cat chewed the bird, he said, paused by a sudden cough. Flesh and bones and feathers while he watched and made those crazy sounds. I could hear him from up here. Then I heard the maids and knew.

She felt nauseated. She didn’t want to ask what came after the incident. Instead, she turned and went back in, closing the screen door. Downstairs, through the colonnaded archway, she went the length of the unlit corridor to the kitchen, bright with lights and the air moist and rich with cooking smells. The older maid stood by the stove, the apron’s string tied across her broad back, ladling soup from a stainless steel pot into a crock. At the kitchen table sat the younger maid, her left arm in a sling. The young maid, hearing her footsteps, looked up.

Good evening, ma’am, the maid said.

Good evening, she said, nodding at both of them just as the older maid turned around from the stove.

Dinner will be ready shortly, ma’am, the older maid said, resting the wooden ladle against the pot’s handle.

I’m not checking on that, she said, stepping past the doorless entrance into the ceramic tiled kitchen. What I want to know is why he went upstairs and took the bird cage without any of you knowing it?

The maids dropped their gaze. She waited. Then the older maid said, I was bringing lunch out to the field for my husband. He was busy by himself ’cos a cow was having a baby. I should’ve taken the little master along with me. She paused, her fingers playing with the hem of her apron. I’m very sorry for what happened, ma’am.

She thought, then said to the younger maid, What about you? Where were you then when she was out?

The younger maid gulped. I was with him, ma’am. I gave him the medicine. He fell asleep after that so I went to take a shower. I didn’t know he woke out of it. It never happened before and I knew how long he’d sleep ’cos of those pills. When I heard him bawling I ran into the dining room and there he was with the bird and the cat. And the cat was eating the bird and he was playing with the bird’s feathers. I just hollered and hollered at him. It was such a mess, blood and feathers all over the floor.

The maid stopped. She watched the young servant crying, said nothing, for her heart was aching with grief. After a while she said, What happened to your arm?

I pulled him up, told him to be quiet. The maid shook her head. I just couldn’t move him at all. Couldn’t quiet him either. Then I tried to yank him up and he got upset and grabbed my arm and twisted it bad. It hurt so much I screamed and then I heard the master from upstairs and I ran outside to get Ba. He was sleeping when I woke him. But Ba couldn’t drag him nowhere this time, so I ran out and found Mr. Qui. He was busy tending the garden but he came in, and he and Ba finally got him up off the floor and took him upstairs. He was punished and I couldn’t dare look. Then the master told us to take him back down to his room.

Is that all? she asked.

The maid said nothing, her eyes to the floor. Then she shook her head. No, ma’am.

What else? she asked.

The master gave an order, and Ba did what he was told.

She kept silent, waiting, yet her stomach churned.

The maid wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Ba found the cat somewhere in the house and took it outside. Ma’am, you have to ask him where he buried the cat.

She felt disoriented. Then the turbulence passed. How bad are you hurt? she said calmly.

The doctor told me I had a sprained elbow, the younger maid said. It hurt bad when it popped but now it’s not hurting as bad.

She looked at both of them and they both bent their heads down. What about him? she said. Has he been looked after?

Yes, ma’am, the younger said, peering up.

Has he been let out?

No, ma’am.

It’s dinner time. Well, let me make sure he behaves. I don’t want hell in this house.

She turned to leave. The younger maid called out, He’s not allowed any visit.

I’ll make the rule for you. With that said, she walked down the corridor and went around the staircase, entered the other archway and down the hallway to where his room was, the last of the several rooms reserved for guests. She turned the doorknob. Locked. It was an oak door, thicker than any ordinary, to deaden the noise he would make. It could only be locked from the outside. She got the key from the hallway sideboard and opened the door. It felt heavy opening.

There was no light in the room. She reached for the wall light switch and flipped it on. The single ceiling lamp shone a soft amber. The room, having a bed, a dresser, no wall mirrors, was thickly carpeted—the only room in the house so. There was no table lamp, for he had played with the light bulbs and crushed them with his hands. The bed sat low, its curved legs in deep chocolate finish, sturdy looking. He sat on the floor at the footboard, both hands tied to the leg of the bed. She saw that he wore a black mask, the devil’s mask worn by the hamlet’s lobster hunters. The mask, fashioned after the devil’s pod of water caltrop in glossy black, was sculpted to resemble a leering goat-horned demon. Seeing him in bondage with such a mask on, like he were being sacrificed to some dark gods, she held her breath momentarily, then sat down by him. He could see her through the eye slits, for he dropped his head in submission. She could see red welts now masked by ointment on the back of his neck. She could see them on his arms and as she stroked his thick back, running her hand softly over his shirt, she didn’t want to look under it. After a while, she tilted the mask up on his face and worked it back to free it from the strap. Across his cheek lay a salmon-colored gash, perhaps from the strike of the stingray’s tail whip.

She held his head in her arms. He glanced up at her, fevered eyes watery.


WIPs Conversation: Khanh Ha on His Work in Progress from Works (of Fiction) in Progress

Khanh Ha’s debut novel is Flesh (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. His new novel has earned a 2013 Leapfrog Fiction Award Honorable Mention.







His short stories have appeared in
Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, Mobius, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, The Mascara Literary Review, Taj Mahal Review, Glint Literary Journal, The Literary Yard, WIPs Journal, Zymbol (2013 Fall Print Edition) and are be forthcoming in the summer issues of storySouth, Crack the Spine, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review (2013 September Anthology), The Underground Voices (2013 December Anthology), and The Long Story (2014 March Anthology). His work has also been nominated for the Sundress Publications 2013 Best of the Net Award. authorkhanhha.com.