A chill wind blew down the alleyway, tugging at Emily’s coat and skittering the dead leaves against the walls, swirling them into trapped, impotent circles.
She pulled her fur collar tight, trying to cover her gold chains. They seemed to inhale cold air and breathe it onto her skin. A stiff gust spun the leaves into a tight vortex and tossed them up over the walls and she felt a pang of jealousy. What wind would be strong enough to blow her away?
A sign creaked, catching Emily’s attention. It was old and faded, as if it had been there for years, but she couldn’t recall ever noticing it before. She peered at the ornate letters and shivered.
A Change of Face, the sign read. How very odd. She squinted into the dimness of the shop window and realised what it meant: the display was a selection of masks; dusty, somewhat moth-eaten, but still rich-looking and finely made. She remembered seeing such things in Venice, and shuddered at the memory. It was during that trip to Europe that she realised how cheaply she’d sold herself.
Money, security, status: empty, hollow things that beckoned brightly but provided no warmth, no joy, no love. She looked into blank eyes of the masks and saw herself looking out. Without thinking, she pushed open the door and stepped inside.
She was surrounded by faces. A unicorn with a horn of spiralled nacre, a silvery half-moon weeping diamond drops, a leopard with gilded spots, pale harlequins with pursed lips and arched brows stared dispassionately down at her.
“May I help you?” a voice inquired by her elbow and she jumped in surprise. The woman, presumably the shopkeeper, regarded her politely with warm eyes in a soft, careworn face. Like one of the masks in the window—faces marked by time and use, but still undeniably beautiful.
“I’m just…I’m just…” Emily had no idea what to say.
“Just looking?” the woman offered. Emily nodded, feeling foolish, but the shopkeeper smiled at her. “Of course, you are. Isn’t everyone? But what is it that you are looking for?”
“I… I don’t…” To her horror, she felt the sting of tears in her eyes.
The shopkeeper clucked and took hold of her arm. “Come along then. We’ll see if we can find what you need in the back.”
She led Emily through the kaleidoscope of the store into a stark room filled with stacks of white boxes. The only other object was a tall counter with a mirror on it.
“Just give me a moment,” the shopkeeper stood Emily before the mirror and worked her way around the room, pulling boxes until she had a stack up to her chin.
Emily regarded her own face in the mirror, noting its polished contours and the cultivated lack of anything resembling character or personality. Like one of the porcelain masks. Any expression of emotion would send cracks spiraling across its glazed surface.
“Here,” the shopkeeper said. She placed a box before Emily and took off the lid. “Try this on for size.”
She looked into the box and saw the mirrored curves and indentations of a human face. She touched the inside of the cheek with a tentative finger and found it smooth and cool to the touch. She lifted it up bent her head down to meet it. It slipped easily over her face and quickly took on the warmth of her skin. She looked into the mirror.
A young woman, flushed and dewy-skinned gazed back at her. Her face was unmarked—almost unformed—still waiting for life to put its stamp on it. An ache suffused Emily’s chest as she remembered how it felt to be such a girl. She had been filled with hope and possibility, with no knowledge of the pain yet to be dealt by the compromises and trade-offs of adulthood.
But she’d learned, and she knew that she could never be that girl again. She took the face off and put it back in the box. The shopkeeper replaced the lid and slid another one before her. Emily slipped it on and turned to the mirror.
It reflected a sultry, heavy-lidded face with dark, plush lips. It was a face to draw men’s eyes, and stir their desires. The woman in the mirror was confident in her power, but there was also unquenchable need, and a fleshy hunger that had been fed and encouraged until it had grown too strong to ever be denied.
Emily shivered, recognising a path she could have taken and felt glad she had not, however stirred she was by the promise of pleasure in those sybaritic lips. She took the face off quickly, before temptation overwhelmed her.
The next mask slipped over her face like a silken scarf. The skin was as delicate and translucent as rice paper, with fine lines creasing every inch. The lips were thin and creased and the eyelids sagged heavily. It was a face of great age and complexity, and Emily was fascinated by what life had written on it. It pulled at her. There were lines of pain and laughter and disappointment. She could trace the patterns of great love and great loss. She saw that the softened jaw had once lifted with determination, and clenched in passionate anger.
She wished she could live her life like that. She wished desperately that she knew how.
She looked around the stark room with all its boxes, realizing that each one contained a different face, a different way of looking out upon the world—even as the world looked back.
She thought of the people in her life and realized that she cared nothing about them except how they saw her. How did they think? What did they feel? Did she have questions to which they might have the answers? Why had she never asked?
Suddenly she’d had enough of thinking only of herself; her eyes turned ever inwards while presenting nothing but the right mask to achieve her desires. She had been like Narcissus, gazing rapturously at her own reflection, hearing only the echoes of her own thoughts until she gradually ceased living altogether.
She took off the mask and looked up at the shopkeeper, the beginnings of a question forming. The lines around the shopkeeper’s eyes crinkled and she nodded.
“I thought it might be you,” she said with a smile. “I wasn’t sure for myself at first, but now I feel ready.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a box with a red ribbon. Turning away, she performed a quick exchange and slid the box in front of Emily.
Emily lifted the face and felt the soft curves of the shopkeeper’s smile merge effortlessly with her own. She took off her coat and gave it to the woman who had moved from behind the counter to stand beside her. They regarded one another with quizzical recognition.
The shopkeeper now wore a face that was younger but not as beautiful as the one she had given to Emily. There were lines of sorrow around the wide mouth and creases of doubt across the bridge of the nose.
“It’s the face I came in with,” the shopkeeper explained. “I wasn’t ready to wear it then, but I think I am now.” She gave Emily a warm hug. “We all wear masks,” she whispered. “It’s learning to see beyond them that matters.” She put on the warm coat and, with a final wave, stepped out into the cold wind of the alley.
Emily stood quietly for a moment; allowing the musty peace of the shop to surround and enfold her. She unhooked the heavy gold chains from around her neck and coiled them into the box on the counter. Re-tying the red ribbon, she slid it back under the counter.
As she stepped out into the shop, the door opened with a gust of wind and leaves and a tall man entered. His lips were thin and tight and lines of disappointment pulled at the corners of his mouth. He looked bitter and capable of being cruel. Emily stepped forward.
“May I help you?” she asked softly.
His eyes were dark and opaque and empty. “I don’t… I’m just…”
“Just looking?” the shopkeeper suggested. “Aren’t we all?” She touched his elbow. “Come, perhaps I can help you find what you’re looking for.”