A short scene taking place between Nightingale’s Strain and Gilded Cage for a Nightingale Inspired by a reader asking the question: what was it like the first time Charles saw his father’s face? Ask and you shall receive~
Musical notes fell like rain. An echo of the gentle storm outside my study’s closed windows. The melody sent shivers down my spine as though I were standing in the chill autumn weather. My fingers shifted on invisible keys, dancing in the exuberant chords that defied the oppressive day. Beside me, Charles rocked back and forth, his eyes skipping over the measures on the page as his petite fingers drew forth the music.
My son. Ten years old. I could hardly believe it! Yet it was indeed true, for just last week Christine marked the passing of the years. Shamefully I was absent from the party. My stubborn pride forbade me to reveal why I could not attend … but …
How many years I had missed in my exile from Paris here in Manhattan, not even aware that I had left behind my most cherished possession with child. A gifted child. A child who excelled at music like his mother … like his … father.
He came to the end of the piece and folded his hands on his lap in silence. His gaze turned slowly to me.
How I longed to shower praise on him for his precision! How I desired to extol his passion!
I reached up and took the musical score from the stand and flipped through to another selection of Mozart’s before placing it back on the stand. “Be mindful of the time signature. This piece should never feel as though it is dragging.”
The spark in his eyes faded slightly. He gave a stiff nod and placed his fingers on the keys. “Yes, Father.”
A lump caught in my throat. Praise stalls progress, my son. One day you will understand why I withhold what you long to hear. An artist must strive.
To the cadence of the rain, he poured out his soul into the piece. I swore the summer sun broke through the roof of my mansion and a vast meadow sprang from the floor. A tear escaped my eye. Every fiber of my being longed to bask in his golden notes as he played.
The last chord of the song hung in the air as I turned my face away from him to lift my mask and wipe away the tear. When I looked back he cocked his head at me, his question quite unexpected.
“Father, why do you always wear a mask?”
Had someone reached into my chest and clamped their hands around my thrashing heart it would have been less painful. My tongue flopped uselessly in my mouth for far too long as I struggled to find the coordination to speak. Idly I spun the simple gold band around my finger. Christine and I had been married for over a year now. She and Charles had been living in my mansion for over two years since coming to America. Why had I never suspected the child would grow curious of my peculiarity? Why had I not prepared myself for this inevitable question?
I stood up and wandered to the window, staring out into the dreary day. Droplets on the windowpane duplicated the horizon of Central Park into countless upside down copies, as scattered as my thoughts. The windowsill took most of my weight as I fought to catch my breath.
He did not utter a word.
The polished brass of the wall sconce caught his reflection. Charles sat with his hands on his knees staring thoughtfully in my direction. His perfect face framed by the dark hair he had inherited from me.
I clenched my fist. A bead of sweat coursed down my face. This would change everything. My eyes shut tightly as I forced the reluctant words through my tight throat. “Because … others do not wish to view my face.”
“Why?” His voice rang with innocence.
I shuddered. He could not know how cruel his question was. He is a child. Children are curious. Don’t be harsh. “There is good reason.” My tongue felt like a chunk of jerky left too long to dry.
The piano bench scrapped the floor. His shoes clacked as he slowly crossed the room. “Men wear hats to cover their hair. Is it because they forget to comb their hair? No one wants to see messy hair. That’s what Mom says. Did you forget to wash your face and that’s why?”
The smile banished the tension for a moment. My son’s innocent observations coaxed a single laugh from me. I reached down and placed a hand on his shoulder. “No, my son. The reason for my shame cannot be solved by a good scrubbing, were that it could. Some things … you will learn that some things are too vulgar to be seen in public.”
He wrinkled his brow at my words.
I traced his jaw with my finger. How I envied his charms. One day, and likely far before I could prepare for it, he would be sought after by many a swooned heart. A true gentleman with a compassionate and easy going nature. Charles would make a perfect husband … unlike myself.
Kneeling down, I cleared my throat. “Charles. You must understand something. Beneath this mask I do not look like everyone else.”
He laughed. “Of course you don’t. Everyone’s face is different.”
I held up a hand. “Believe me, some differ more than others. Because of the way I was born, I must wear this mask to protect others from nightmares. One day, when you are older, I will show you.”
“I’m old enough now.” He folded his arms across his chest and huffed a breath. “Momma says I’m a big boy!”
Memories of a shattered mirror and the shards in my hands stung as I shut my eyes. Spare him! The mantra thundered in my ears. He was too young to be haunted by the terror of his father’s face. My hands curled into fists on my knee. Frozen there, I could have been carved in stone.
The brush of his fingertips against my temples jolted me. But I could not move.
The ribbon holding the mask in place shifted through my hair. But still I could not move.
The pressure of the silk machete mask vanished from the thin skin of malformed face. But still I could not move. Not even to open my eyes.
A faint thump, then an object leaned against my shin, just heavy enough to be the mask. A rasped breath broke the drawn out silence. The clack of a shoe as he took a step back, followed by another. The pattern of his breathing grew in intensity verging on hyperventilation.
Still I remained bound in stone by my shame, locked behind my eyelids. Imagining the horror on my son’s face was as much as I could take. I could not bear to actually witness it. Tonight his nightmares would begin. Tonight he would scream … and I could not go to him for fear of making it worse.
Should have stopped him! You asinine fool!
The floor beneath my knee grew warm I had been there so long. Tears dripped from my chin to form a puddle on the stone floor. I could hear him breathing deeper now, that shuddering catch breath one makes when recovering from a shock. I had no concept of how long we remained locked in this vicious cycle of torment.
But I had to end it.
I picked up the mask and slipped it into place. Turning away, I opened my eyes to the countless raindrops sliding down my windowpane. Like a puppeteer pulling strings I edged myself upright and forced the dignified stance I normally held.
Once more the reflection in the sconce showed me my son. Charles huddled beneath the piano, his hands clamped around the gloss black leg. His wide gaze stared at nothing. He reminded me of a dog I once saw that escaped being run over by a carriage by no more than a hair’s breadth.
I crossed the room and gently coaxed his fingers from the piano. He was still small enough I could carry him, but not for much longer. Lifting him up, I held him close to me and felt the throbbing of his heart.
He buried his face in my vest and sobbed. “I … I didn’t mean to … Father I … oh God! Why would God do that?”
Tears stung my eyes as I stroked his back. “That is a question I have asked the whole of my life and never found an answer. Now, I hope you understand why my mask is so precious to me. It guards my dignity.”
Charles sniffled and lifted his head, red-rimmed eyes locked with my gaze. “Can you fix it?”
My eyes clamped shut and my head bowed under the weight of his question. I could not reply, for I had no voice with which to speak. I could only shake my head. If I had been born whole … how many times had I asked that question in the endless solitude? How many times had I driven myself mad by such a quandary?
At last a sob broke through my brooding. “No, my son. No one can fix me.” His hold on me tightened until I swore that he would force the air from my lungs. “I wish that someone could, Charles … but at least I have you and your mother. You are all I need to feel what the world denied me. I am a true man.”