It had no eyes. Yet it tracked his every move. The no-eyes of the mask bored into his soul. The boy itched to leave this place.
The mask hung there on the north wall of the wattle and daub hut. It rested on the stubbed end of a length of willow that protruded from the daub, the dried earth that plastered the woven branches beneath. Around the curving walls, other stubs pierced into the room where Heart Father lived. Talismans dangled, sacred objects rested on those as well.
None of those others followed him, though. Only the mask.
It was blue, but he was quite accustomed to faces painted blue. Sometimes, on certain days he was only just learning to anticipate, the mask’s edges seemed to glow in the corners of his eyes, and whispered chants almost reached his ears. On those days, the itch to leave rose up and he tore at his skin, seeking to scratch deep in his belly, where the troubles lived.
On those days, Heart Father grew restless. He attempted to rise from his pallet there on the low bench near the fire. Heart Father’s lips moved, though he could no longer speak. His eyes were like the no-eyes on those days, reaching for him, wanting and maybe needing. No matter how often the boy asked Heart Father what it was, he could not say. No matter how firmly he pressed the old man back onto his pallet, still Heart Father struggled. He suffered, and the boy with him, while the mask watched. While the mask, like Heart Father, spoke in words he could not hear.
As the Turning approached, Heart Father spent more and more time flailing, sending dust flying as his limbs beat uselessly against the thin pallet. The itch inside the boy was like wildfire, overtaking him and filling him with hot anger. Did Heart Father not know that his trashing meant the boy would have to gather more broomstraw to fill his pallet? Did the old man want to make more work for him? Was he not busy enough? Did he not see to everything, the food and the fire and even the wastes the old man produced? Why should he be given more to do? Why did he have to care for Heart Father anyway? He was useless. Old and useless and it would be a good day when the boy woke to find him stiff and cold.
He said it all, there in the silence of his mouth, there where no one could hear.
Except the mask heard. How could it hear with no ears? But it must have, because from his eye’s edges, he could see it rock there on it stub. The boy looked at it full on, for the first time in days, hoping and fearing that it would move again.
What he saw instead made his knees turn to yesterday’s soup, weak and liquid beneath him. He sat on the dirt floor, suddenly and hard, unable to look away, even when he heard the rustling behind him that meant Heart Father was thrashing again, despite the brew the boy had managed to barter for, and poured between his lips to calm him.
The mask’s glow was no longer hidden. Blue fire outlined its shape, not simply the face, but the jutting prongs of the headdress put there to make it appear larger and fiercer. To scare the bad things away, the boy suddenly knew. And there, just between and above its no-eyes, colors, where no colors had ever been. As he stared, ignoring the impossible sounds behind him, the colors took shape. What was that? From the same place the mask’s purpose had come to him, this he knew as well: it was the sacred Turtle, turned this way and that, smaller and smaller until he could barely make out the legs and head. Head down, the largest shape, and within it, head up, head down, and in the center, where his belly itched — but how could that be his belly when it was the mask? — head up once more.
The boy stretched his hand toward the mask, pulled by the lodestone of the turtle.
“Yes, boy, take it. It’s yours. I’ve been trying to get you to take it for a year now.”
The boy’s head whipped around. It was Heart Father’s voice, and yet it couldn’t be. He couldn’t talk. And yet it was.
Another cannot-be twisted his vision. Had he eaten the wrong cactus? Was he going to die? Was he dead already?
There was Heart Father, lying on his pallet, like always, but beside him, moving toward him, was Heart Father, too. That one, the boy could see through, shimmering and shifting, like the edges of the mask. He was there-not-there.
The shimmering Heart Father laughed and said, “No, boy, you haven’t died. The shell of me is about to, though, so I need to tell you quickly. Get up and take the mask, Turtle Boy.”
The itch in his belly was gone. The boy almost cried out, but his mother’s words came back to him. “Do not shame me by crying,” she had said, and he never had. This was no time to shame the memory of his mother.
This solemn moment he would not shame, he might finally have a name. He’d had no name. He was simply “boy.” But now? Had Heart Father given him a name, a name like real people? Truly?
“Yes, you are Turtle Boy, and you may tell the rest of the People. But take the mask, and quickly. My shell is weak.”
“Your shell, Heart Father?” The boy pushed up to his feet, hoping his knees were trees again and not soup. He stood for a moment, feeling Mother Earth with his toes, and then reached for the mask.
“The body I have worn, Turtle Boy. The one you have cared for so well. It is dying, so I will leave it behind.”
Turtle Boy nodded and said, “I will miss it.”
“Yes, you will.” Heart Father gestured toward the mask and Turtle Boy’s fingers touched it.
He could not help but gasp. He felt a stirring through him, like he’d had when the fire from the sky had come down and split the tree he was standing under. His hand closed around the edge of the mask without his telling it to and before he could think long and slow about it, as he was supposed to do, he had the mask held up to his face, as close as the length of a knuckle.
He stopped and looked back at Heart Father. “Am I worthy, Heart Father?” Only those who were good could touch the sacred objects.
“Yes, Turtle Boy, you are more than worthy. The mask called you. Trust it. It will never lead you down the crooked path.”
For a moment, Turtle Boy wondered if Heart Father had heard the mask chanting for the feast days, but the mask nudged his heart and he pressed it to his face.
The instant it touched him, he grew up. His body — his shell — remained a boy, but his thoughts and knowings and feelings became a man. He could see everything, the seven directions, the four elements, the whole of the earth and its mysteries. He knew what lived in the holes of the creek bank. He knew how to tell which stones would make good spear heads. He knew how to choose a mate. He knew how to care for the shell Heart Father would leave behind.
“Yes, yes, Turtle Boy! You see? The mask is for you, and with it you will guide the People.”
“I? But— “
Heart Father took a step and held out his shimmering hand. Turtle Boy clasped his forearm, surprised that he could feel it as solid as the one dangling off the pallet. Heart Father’s hand closed around his own forearm. “You are a man now, and I must go.”
Turtle Boy wanted to be a little boy again, just for a moment, so he could beg Heart Father to stay. Instead, he nodded and the shimmering Heart Father was gone. He knew without checking that the shell on the pallet was empty. The mask allowed him a moment’s sadness, and then showed him that he must care for the body and then summon the People for the rituals.
Turtle Boy leaned over the pallet and whispered, “Goodbye, Heart Father. Thank you for my name.” He laid a hand to the old man’s rapidly cooling cheek and when he straightened, he heard the mask say, Now, let us begin.
[Image Credit: Rebecca Poole, Dreams2Media, used by permission]