Traci Robison and Heitzi Epstein

Heitzi Epstein
Inspiration piece

The Muradun Mask
By Traci Robison


The Muradun mask rested in a simple black box lined with eiderdown and dried blossoms. Daes smelled crushed marigold and peony, remains of bouquets left for her or for the goddess she served—Matamura, the moonmother and peacemaker. The mask’s blank white face stared up at Daes, waiting. Most days Daes would remove the mask without ceremony and call her servant Eula to tie its leather straps behind her head. But this day Daes needed a moment to look at the face of Lady Solace, Mother of All.

The Muradun mask could have been woman or man. “Man and woman alike embody Matamura. Both have served Taniga as our Muradun,” Daes’ mother had explained to her long ago. “You see, my kiptkin, in the heavens, woman and man are neither and both. We call Matamura Mother of All, for she gives us mother’s love.”

Daes sighed, remembering that conversation and snips of so many more as she traced the mask’s domed brow with her fingertips. Soft curves created a kind countenance. A slight impression suggested lips about to smile. Though the mask had no eyes nor slits through which to peer, the crescent hollows beneath its brow gazed, ghostlike, back at Daes.

“Come, Eula,” she called. “Help me prepare.”

Eula brought the Muradun robe from its cabinet. She paused, frowning at Daes’ slumped back and, laying the robe aside, stroked circles between Daes’ shoulder blades.

“The robe,” Daes said. “I’m ready.”

Staring down at the mask, she scarcely noticed the heavy wool robe upon her shoulders. She did not feel the ruff of feathers and snowfox fur at her throat. Making room for the goddess, her spirit drifted, not outward this time, but backward into memory.

Her hand upon the alabaster face seemed to her scaled leather, reptilian and aged. Her hands alone, those hands that stroked and held the suffering, showed something of herself. Not frail and papery, her skin was thickened by garden toil that fed her soul and body. Calluses and thorn scrapes and slivers in her palm were her own. In her garden’s sunlight, Daes wore neither mask nor robe and let the sun’s smile streak her ruby hair with gold. From her mother she had learned the magic of sprouting seeds and reaping bounties.

Gouging her fingers in rain-dampened soil, the little girl Daes had listened to her mother’s tales of Matamura and the Muradun mask. Dropping bean seeds into dark beds and mounding hills around them, daughter had learned from mother about the world without and the world within.

“Matamura gave us the Muradun mask so she could come to us in living comfort,” Daes’ mother had explained.

“Why not come from the heavens herself?” Daes recalled asking.

“The Muradun is a gift—to the maskwearer, most of all.” Her mother’s near smile had resembled the mask’s vague grin. “Matamura in her kindness helps us grow through one another.”

Enigmatic, ever-present, her mother’s tales had gripped Daes’ childish imagination and sparked yearning no story or answer or riddling rhyme could quench. When the last Muradun had put aside the mask, Daes was among five who had braved the caves to seek it. In the cave she had dreamed Matamura came to her as white flame with no more face than the mask suggested. Matamura had said nothing, but, touching the girl’s brow, had given her the gift of peace. Daes, alone, had emerged four days later and crawled to the altar stone to claim the robe of the Muradun.

She wondered now whether she had been given any choice at all in what she had become.

Watching Daes, Eula worried. She stood in front of Daes and touched her arm, rousing her. Daes nodded, removing her hand from the mask. When Eula lifted it to Daes’ face, Daes saw the small cracks and imperfect repairs inside. Since before common memory, the mask had brought people peace. They beheld a perfect surface, a goddess’ face. None guessed at the fissures beneath.

Atop the mask Eula fastened the white horsehair wig. Over Daes’ shoulders the pale tresses flowed to her waist. A brisk greeting gust whipped strands across the mask’s cheeks as they stepped into the foreyard.

Eula led Daes, step by step and arm in arm, into the street. Daes could neither see nor speak, and, this day, wearing the Muradun mask, she could barely breathe. Her heart lost its rhythm. Her hands sweat, cold.

Eula pulled her closer. Children chased their heels, singing praise and begging blessings. Old women came from their doors to watch Lady Solace pass in her rough beauty. The nubby robe of undyed wool swept the dust from the cobblestones with each shuffling step.

At a low green door Eula stopped. Daes ducked through the entrance without being told to stoop. Her feet found their way through the forechamber to the barren bedroom without Eula leading the way.

“Goddess,” the hoarse, crackling murmur was not the warm rich voice from Daes’ memories. The room, as still as winter, amplified each labored breath. “Matamura.”

A papery hand clutched Daes’. Feeling its warmth, Daes perceived the coldness of her own.

“You honor me,” the old woman said. The dying often said such things to the Muradun.

Eula helped Daes into a chair at the bedside and left them. Tears slipped down Daes’ cheeks and slid over her lips beneath the mask’s closed mouth. Silent, she wept, keeping her breath even and letting her nose run without a single sniffle.

For twenty years she had not looked upon her mother’s face. For twenty years Daes herself had not been seen.

Daes held the woman’s hand and listened to her breathing. When the silence thickened, Daes could not breathe at all. The mask seemed to shrink, squeezing and smothering. Daes’ scrambling fingers cast off the wig and tore at the tethered leather strings until at last she pulled the Muradun mask from her face.

Her mother’s lips shifted in a soft almost-smile. She lifted her palsied hand and wiped tears from Daes’ chin.

“My girl,” her mother said. “Mine.”

Daes lay the Muradun mask across her lap. Her own voice sounded hoarse when she spoke. “I love you.”

The Muradun mask stared up at their joined hands, waiting.


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