They gathered around the bed, squeezed in tight, shoulder to shoulder. They’d come dressed in their finest; rich black silks and pressed linen mourning suits, tophats and veils pressed down over inhuman heads and jagged muzzles. Their sharp animal smell mingled with the twin scents of dust and lavender, almost concealing the lingering twists of age and decay.
Nobody jostled, nobody spoke. Even those who, by rights, should have torn one another to shreds by now; there was a precedent to these things, and a code.
The figure on the bed stirred. A frail, wrinkled hand– almost translucent in the gloom– rose and fell imperceptibly against a rail-thin chest. Finally the occupant opened his eyes, blinked once or twice, and surveyed the gathered crowd. An array of animal-headed people, their eyes bright and inky-black. Impassive. Watching.
“Oh,” he said. His voice faltered, whisper-thin. He looked disappointed to see them, but not surprised. “I wanted to sleep.”
The crowd said nothing.
The shortest of them– a little grey-faced mouse in a tight black mourning suit– stepped forward, something vast and unwieldy clutched in his arms: It was a mask; a gigantic fox face mask, made to fit comfortably over the wearer’s entire head. It rustled in the mouse’s grip, comically large, the ears tufted and sharp, the fur rendered in spikes of rich red paper. The eyes glimmered like twin drops of indian ink.
Gently, almost reverently, the mouse laid the mask on the old man’s chest and drew back. The old man gazed at it a moment, then levered himself up onto his elbows.
“Well,” he said. “At the very least one of you could help me into it.”
Nobody moved. The mouse had already retreated.
The old man picked up the mask, examined it, then slipped it on over his head. The crowd watched as he turned this way and that, testing the stability, feeling the snug fit.
Then he sighed, the weight of the mask transforming the sound into a soft growl. The black ink-blot eyes blinked. Once. Twice.
The crowd settled back, satisfied.
There was a time and a place, they all agreed, for playing at humanity. But eventually everyone had to put their mask back on. Otherwise you’d forget what you looked like. Forgot how it felt to wear your own skin. And nobody wanted that.
There was a precedent to these things, and a code.
Georgia Cook is an illustrator and writer from London, specialising in ghost stories and fairy tales. She has been shortlisted for the Staunch Book Prize and Reflex Fiction Award, and published as both an author and reviewer. She can be found on twitter at @georgiacooked.