“Are you coming tonight?”
“I’d love to join you guys, but I’ll take a rain check on that.”
Nicole had tried to include her new roommate in her group of friends, but every time she invited her, Anna refused. She was so serious, so quiet, her melancholic aura sometimes heavy to breathe. She felt sorry for her. If only she tried a little, she could have a much more interesting life.
As far as she could remember, Anna has always led a drab life. As a child, grown-ups said that she had an old soul, that she was unusually quiet. She wasn’t the type to run around, jump on beds or sing at the top of her lungs. She was often found in a nook with a book in her hands.
Even today, in her spare time she prefers to turn the pages of a novel, sitting in her favourite chair. Or, with closed eyes, to be lulled by the melodies emanating from the record player she keeps on her bedside table. She enjoys eating butter noodles and drinking sparkling water. She’s not outgoing nor an adrenaline junkie who’s constantly striving to push herself. She’s … grey.
It had never bothered her before. She lived well with her flat personality but the more she rubbed shoulders with the flamboyant Nicole, the more her loneliness distressed her. She would love to come out of her shell, but she didn’t know how to open up to others.
One Saturday morning, after her breakfast, Anna goes out for a walk. Nicole will probably sleep two or three more hours, and getting some fresh air will do her good. She walks along the sidewalk, lost in her thoughts and her solitude, indifferent to the traffic, the noise of the city, or the passers-by. Without knowing how, she finds herself in front of a tiny shop hidden in a secluded alley. “Emotion Catcher” can be read on the worn wooden sign.
The ringing of the bell breaks, for just a split second, the silence in the shop. The dated wooden door closes with a creak. Anna stood still, captivated by everything around her. The scents that permeated the air tickled her nose, awakening old memories. A smell that she knew, that went back as far as her childhood, of old houses, damp woodwork, with a hint of crisp autumn leaves. Just by walking through that door, it was as though you stepped back in time a century ago. The smell of pine hung in the air. There was an atmosphere of a puppet or carpentry workshop. Yet no puppet was in sight. No, from floor to ceiling all you saw were masks. Grotesque masks, tragic masks, ugly and lovely masks. Wooden masks, papier-mache masks, glass masks. Some smiled at you, others laughed or mocked you. Somewhere a clock ticks and further a radio is playing an old French ballad. A magical place like her grandmother’s attic.
She walks to the old wooden counter. An old cherry wood counter on which restes a bronze reception bell that clang dully. A shadow came out of the wall, or rather of a door hidden in a corner, the very archetype of the passionate craftsman. The shadow took shape and an old gentleman with a happy face, his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, wearing faded red suspenders, almost brown, appeared. The proof of his long experience was seen in his callused hands. Everything about him exuded confidence and self-sacrifice for his profession.
His gaze invited the young woman to open her heart. A dull, faint voice, a voice without nuance or passion, whispered to the merchant.
“I would like … joy, please.”
“Of course Dearest. What kind of joy? A childish joy, malignant joy, a little madness perhaps? Do you want an intense, a peaceful or a wild joy?”
“Just … joy. Pure joy. A joie de vivre… please…”
The craftsman seemed to ponder on the matter. His salt and pepper eyebrows joined to form a single line, his eyes scanning the walls of his precious stall. He sighed, clicked his tongue and slowly shook his head.
“I’m afraid that’s very rare, sweetheart. But if you give me a few days, I can make one for you. A brand new joy, what do you say?”
Anna felt a tickle in her stomach, like the caress of the soft hair of a caterpillar, not quite butterflies. Even her voice showed one or two intonations.
“Yes. I thank you, sir. I’ll be back in three days.”
Her delicate figure faded, took three small steps from the counter, walked to the door, and slipped out of the store. As the bell chimed, and the door creaked, the shadow melted back into the wall. You could still hear the ticking of the clock and a purring cat but the radio went silent and no other sound was heard.
On the other side of it, a workshop was held there, filled with old masks, faded, broken or not yet finished. All the emotions could be read on this wall: anger, sadness, jealousy, love, joy, fear… You name it. Something to delight theatre lovers, actors and spectators alike. In the centre of the room, a table was buried under tools. Sitting on a stool worn by time, the artisan contemplates his workbench. He strokes pieces of wood, one after the other, as if they could talk to him. Finally, he chooses one. He grabs it, turns it between his fingers, scratches it with the tip of his fingernail, then puts it back. Finally, he grabs his tools and gets to work.
She wanted joy. She even specified a “joie de vivre”. The craftsman welcomed people like her, these lost souls, almost daily. They were all looking for different masks, looking for subtlety. These shades, it was up to him to create them, to bring them to life. He knew how to turn anger into rage or love into passion. Sometimes he needs to go back to see his old creations. He observes these people bring his creations to life, giving them substance. He’s proud of his work, of what he brought to all these humans. Lost in his thoughts, the craftsman continues to build his mask. His hands seemed to have a life of their own, each gesture so repeated that it had become automatic.
The piece of wood thinned over the hours, the rough block metamorphosing into a face. The eyes lit up to which he added a grain of humour. An upturned nose appeared and lips slowly formed. Then, the smile … the high point of his creation. Working meticulously for long hours brought him closer and closer to ecstasy. An intense joy looked to paint itself on the wooden lines. A slow smile worked its way across its face. Small wrinkles appeared at the corners of the eyes. The nose seemed to wrinkle in amusement. And the smile materialized, forever joyful.
When he completed the shaping of the wood, he put his work down and studied it. In the sky, the moon has risen, the stars have lit, the night lasts a few hours then the darkness dissipates, but his mask isn’t done. It lacked the finishing touches. He grabbed a few cans of paint, brushes and examined his artwork again. The whiteness and the softness of sanded wood recalled the fine skin of his client’s face. But a few strokes of colour were missing, here and there, so that the illusion was total.
The craftsman busied himself with his mixtures, creating an ivory skin colour, which blended into the wood. He brushed the lips with a touch of red, oh barely, just enough to show them off. Each colour he applied incorporated into the wood and gave a more intense result. When finished, you could almost see a real face. A lifeless face, but a happy one.
The chime of the bell rang again and broke, for just a moment, the silence of the store. The old wooden door closed with a creak. A delicate figure stepped forward and walked more confidently towards the counter, The smell of pine hung in the air. If we were lucky enough to have a strong sense of smell, we could also perceive citrus undertones. Another bell rings, this time coming from the bronze one adorning the counter. A shadow came out of the wall, it seemed to be carrying something.
The craftsman placed an object on the wooden counter, carefully wrapped. Anna grabbed it and unwrapped it just as gently. In her hands rested a wooden mask. The young woman brought it closer to her face. If we looked at both, we might have believed in a reflection in a mirror. Except for the emotion painted on each visage. One was bleak, sad, expressionless. A woman’s face, thin and delicate. Beige. The other exuded joviality and happiness. Anna turned the mask over and placed it on her face. The two seemed to blend then. In a burst of spontaneity, she took the craftsman in her arms and hugged him. Then she walked away with a light step and the sound of the doorbell mingled with her crystalline laughter. The client disappeared around the corner, but the echo of her laughter remained. A laugh that expressed joy. Pure joy.