The Midnight Masquerade
All eyes found me when I appeared atop the wide marble steps of the great hall.
Gathered before me were hundreds of people with faces hidden underneath feathered, bejeweled, half or full creature masks.
I entered the ballroom, not as a stranger, but an expectant guest.
A man took my hand and led me among the bodies that filled the dancefloor.
How I got here and how I had transformed were lost to me; my dress was a mystery revealed to me at the very second I was invited in. The gown made of lace and satin bristled as I blended into the crowd of men in penguin tail tuxedos and romantic shirts with ruffles and flares, and women wearing ruffled satin gowns with corsets.
This might have been the court of Marie Antoinette, for all I knew. Then my eyes found the throne overlooking the room. And there was the host, not the infamous French queen, but another far more interesting.
Her eyes bore into me from the sixty feet or more between us.
I had no doubt of where I found myself.
In the court of the Midnight Queen, she whose name the world had lost, but whose legacy had become legend among the living.
I meant to say or do something but could not remember.
At last, it didn’t matter, for the gentleman who took my hand and engulfed me in dance looked very dashing. He wore a mask with devil’s horns, and trousers of fine silk and lace, a very romantic getup. Nothing mattered once I began to dance—all sorts of dancing—happy, feet shuffling, swing, arm in arm, switching partners and laughing, dipping under arms and turning back and forth.
It was a jovial affair, and no one seemed sad, not until I began to pay attention. Beneath their laughter and mutterings was weariness, not the kind that came with having too much fun. It was a baring of the soul, a deep rooted gloom I saw in their eyes.
“Lady, is something the matter?" asked my nameless suitor. This handsome man had stayed at my side since I arrived, and now he eyed me with calm inspection.
“No, nothing's the matter,” I said, and placed my hands in his, carrying on the dance.
I could not shake the feeling that kept me from overindulgence—the feeling of slaves trapped in a dance of enchantment. Some niggling of thought or issue persisted at the back of my mind—a memory lost. Was I to be here? Why? From where did my companions come?
Laughter wrung out among the pristine room, carefully designed and lovely. The hydrangeas were fresh, as were the lilacs and jasmine—all these I saw, but only one plant caught my attention, a strange-looking long-vined flower aligning the walls.
When at last I had a chance, I wandered to the strange plant, black and red, and like nothing I had seen. Its folded leaves twisted, almost rose like, though a rose it was not, not for lack of beauty. It was not delicate, per se. Its vines twisted and strangled the furniture and wall against which they ran. The plant was perfumed, stinging and intoxicating, stifling all smells within three feet of it.
Gripped by some strong compelling desire, I pushed my hands toward the plant, wanting only to feel it, only to hear the voice, smooth and calm, omnipresent and disembodied, making me believe, for a brief moment, that it was in my head.
“Please resist the urge, she spoke coolly.
I spun, feeling like a child caught in the act of wrongdoing.
The Midnight Queen smiled, as if to put me at ease.
I jerked, surprised that she stood before me.
I swore she didn’t a second ago.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, sinking into myself and not quite comprehending why.
Standing in her presence, I felt a tremendous weight and power, what someone had once dubbed, a vibe—warm, dark and powerful. One might be forgiven for thinking she and I were of similar ages, but her youthful face bore the wisdom of a deep-seated knowledge I did not possess.
I stood before the living myth, whose legacy conveyed great stories. That a queen ruled realms known to the living, but outside of our breach, was taught to all children. To be here, in front of her, humbled me. When I came to my senses, I realized how small she was; her face was almost mantis-like, with deep, dark eyes—black oceans of knowledge.
I winced when I realized she was reading my thoughts, this queen of midnight.
“It’s alright,” she spoke, her voice never changing pitch yet having a rippling effect of power. “The Sisren plant has strong allure.” She brushed her hand above the surface of the vines and they trembled in response.
I noticed then the rings on her fingers. Rings on all but her pinkies—strangely shaped jewelry. A spider ring, black-stoned and red-stoned rings, a ring of symmetrically twisting lines, an all-seeing eye ring, a flower ring, and simple bands. It made her all the more intriguing to me.
“You are not the first to be drawn to them,” she explained.
When she shifted, her form-fitting gown of black beads and lace shimmered, emanating a powerful surge of dark energy that rippled between us. It was a magical dress. I could never wear that dress. It was made for her, and only her. It would, as people were inclined to say, wear me. Her neck was bore a sprawling beady breastplate, and her hair was intricately twisted with braids—stunning.
“I expected them to attract men, but even women may struggle to resist their pull. And you are new, so you’re especially vulnerable.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, again.
She smiled, eyeing me. “It’s alright, again.”
The Midnight Queen stared at me with an anticipatory look, letting me know she could read me. I remembered then what had bothered me upon my arrival, the purpose that nagged me throughout the evening. “I’m looking for someone,” I told her.
“I know,” she admitted confidently. “But there’s a chance you will not return to the world of the living,” she said.
“I’m told you’re merciful.”
“I’m dutiful, too,” she said, “Breaching the doorway between the living and the dead has consequences, which I am certain the witchdoctor whose aid you sought must have told you.”
“I only wanted to fix my mistake,” I said, unraveling. “I’ll risk the punishment.”
“The punishment is your soul,” she said, glancing off to the ballroom of waltzing people.
It occurred to me then to ask, “Where is this?”
“The in-between,” she replied. “The bargainers—the people existing between life and death are all here, awaiting their fate.”
“You keep them here.”
“They bargained with their souls, aided by demons and witchdoctors, and this is where they end up—not resting as others do when they sleep, but awake, waiting for death to free them.”
Nothing about her words surprised me as my eyes washed over the weary looking inhabitants of the room, eternally engaged in dance and laughter. They weren’t dead. They were like me, wanderers from the world of the living, who bargained their souls for some cause they felt was worth it, and now they found themselves punished this way. This place was some sort of purgatory for the living.
“This is my punishment, too, isn’t it?”
“You are looking for someone,” she said, those dark eyes piercing into mine. “That someone you seek has passed.”
“Where has he gone?”
“To where the dead go.”
“It should’ve been me,” I stammered, remembering the accident. "He died because of my stupidity, and everyone I loved hated me for it. I made the bargain to bring him back from death. I failed."
“I understand regret and the desire to undo a mistake. There is no need for tears,” she told me. “What’s done is done.”
“I can’t go home, can I?”
“You will. Ritual sent you here, not death,” she said.
I recalled the witchdoctor’s gibberish words as he performed his dark magic. My body was lying on his floor in his medicine hut in the living world. My soul was here.
“This is the bargain you will receive. The same as the others here. Your waking hours belong to you, but your sleeping hours belong to me.”
“There’s no peace in that.”
“When your life is over, you will find peace,” she assured me. “But you have the rest of your life to live, which means, every time you shut your eyes to sleep, you will come here. It won’t seem pleasant when you awake—you’ll be tired and drained and your mind will begin to slip from you. Many of these people have fallen into anguish in the living world. It takes its toll.”
“Hush,” she said in soft nurturing voice. “There are hours to go until you wake. You should dance and try to be happy.”
I returned to the dance, under the watchful eyes of the Midnight Queen. My waking memories slipped into oblivion, chipping away as I danced.
When I woke, alive and tired, the witchdoctor was nowhere in sight. I returned to life, falsely believing it had all been a nightmare, but when I slept, I would return to the masquerade ball.
Each time I woke, the memory of this place raced away from me, no matter how hard I tried to keep it. It became ephemera. Sometimes there was a whiff of something, a hint, a breeze, the sense of familiarity or the ghostly sound of laughter. Once, while under hypnosis to deal with my sleeplessness, my therapist said that I ranted complete gibberish, a language no one understood.
There was nothing I could do, and when others began to notice my tiredness, I tried to tell them of my epic dream, which lingered in my mind as a palimpsest, an outline of a memory; but nothing came to me, no hint of masquerades, of lavish French gowns and aromatic plants, and none of the Midnight Queen.
Not unless I dreamed.