I wake up in somebody else’s shoes.
The reins of sleep still encircle my wrists and throat like strands of pearls, but this single ray of knowledge slices through the veil like the glint of a sharpened jewel.
I know nothing else, but on this my faith is unshakeable— these are no shoes of mine.
Like sheaths of molten ruby cradling the arch of my foot, grasping my ankles with clinging, bloodied fingers, they feel like an ossified skin encasing my tender flesh.
I peer at them through the single standing mirror leaning against the wall. The top half has been obliterated, a nebula of cracks exploding outwards from a single point where it looks as though someone has put their fist through the glass. All that is visible are my torso and legs, an anonymous body perched on the edge of a mattress.
Where am I?
A sudden movement draws my attention. I startle.
“Who are you?”
A shadow hovers in the doorway, gazing silently. The bedsheets whisper against my skin as I struggle to my feet. Do not go, they say.
The silhouette comes into focus as I blink the bleariness out of my eyes.
Layers of gleaming scarlet silks and splashes of inky lace are elegantly draped over the androgynous figure. A delicate mask sits atop the bridge of a nose and weaves a glamorous facade around bottomless eyes.
When they speak at last, their voice comes out all soft and swaying like italics— like blades of seagrass at the bottom of a tidepool, an inner thought blurred behind a translucent cloak.
Come, they say. We’ve been waiting.
I’m taken by the elbow and led out of the room, where I find myself standing atop a winding, onyx staircase. The stranger quickly descends the steps, tapping their fingers along the barbed banister as they go. The click of nails sounds like ivory dominoes, a chain reaction of toppling bodies.
I hesitantly follow on their heels, trailing a breath’s distance behind like a timid shadow.
We travel downwards for what feels like hours. The continuous slope is framed by columns of smoke that break off and drift into my path, pawing at my body and impersonating the air in my lungs.
My vision is rendered useless, as are most of my senses. It is only when I reach the last step and the darkness slides off my body like a discarded nightgown that the splendor of our destination is revealed.
The ballroom is not just vast, but endless. Every surface is made of mirrors, the crystal spray of chandeliers sending light ricocheting in a dazzling display of stars: a pantomimed sky.
“Where is the clock?” I ask. I know that there is one here somewhere— I can hear it. It’s all I can hear, a deafening ticking sound that seems to be coming as much from my surroundings as from the depths of my very mind.
Time is not seen, it is felt. You will feel when it is time.
“Time for what?”
But my question goes unanswered, and my attention is seized by the various wonders and attractions that lurk in every corner.
Countless guests are present whom I have somehow only just noticed, already celebrating and losing themselves in the party. There are masks of every design and color, some patterned with lace, others feathered, some sparkling with brilliant cut gems. Not a single face remains uncovered.
The mirrors upon mirrors make it impossible to tell just how many people surround me. It is infinity on all sides. I have the thought that this room must contain the whole universe, and everyone inside it.
Go, comes the susurration of words in my ear. Enjoy yourself. But keep track of the time.
Excitement brushes along my arms like invisible feathers, tickling goosebumps across my skin. The clock is drowned out; the sweet voices of a string ensemble fill my ears with honey, an eerily enchanting waltz soaking into my pores.
I take an eager step forward, then freeze. The mirrors stretch and warp.
At a long glass table, gargantuan platters are piled high with meats, fruits, pastries, and unidentifiable delicacies. A swarm surrounds the feast, not a single guest taking a chair before delving into the food, mouths first, hands stuck in.
The aromas are mesmerizing, but the sight makes my stomach turn. Faces morph into sauce-smeared contortions; gowns of silk and taffeta become embroidered with splatters and stains; and there, thrumming underneath the commotion like the deep, blooming resonance of a cello, lies the muted snarling of starving creatures.
As I allow myself to truly observe my surroundings, grotesque images begin lunging at me with outstretched claws.
Velvet chaises are strewn about; some draped with lazily splayed limbs and glassy expressions, others adorned with writhing couples. I avert my eyes from torn bodices and bloodstained lips.
The center hosts a skyscraping fountain of cascading waterfalls, its basin full of greedy eyes that glint brighter than metal, and hitched skirts weighed down with gold coins. Along the rim reads the engraving: Collect discarded wishes. Take only what you can carry.
Screams leap above the music, which now sounds less like melodic singing and more like chilling ululations. Fights break out to my left and right; poison flung from forked tongues, skirts ripped to shreds, diamonds torn clean from earlobes.
Bottles are thrown, plates are smashed. A garden of iridescent glass petals grows across the floor, and I have to take care where I step.
“I think I would like to go,” I whimper to myself, feeling ill.
These people are animals, their savage bacchanal a crude mockery of humanity. My companion remains unmoved.
You have to stay until the clock strikes midnight.
“What happens at midnight?”
The voice turns cold, accusing.
Do you think that you are better than them?
The walls of my stomach go rigid; inside it, something drops and shatters against the stone.
“Look at how these people act,” I answer tonelessly. “Of course I’m better than them.”
It is all part of the festivities. The possibilities are endless when your identity has been cast away.
“But I am not partaking in this madness.”
You are not wearing a mask.
My hand seeks out my face. It’s all there: my own eyes, my own nose, my own mouth and chin.
Suddenly, I feel naked. The grip around my ankles tighten. My heart lurches, the momentum thrusting it violently against the shell of a body that has stopped still. My skin grows cold and clammy. Something is very, very wrong.
That’s what it is. The ballroom is completely, utterly silent, the music vanished, the calamitous voices dispersing into thin air. Not a single breath is drawn, not a single soul moves.
You feel it?
“It’s time,” I gasp.
There’s a collective staggering of sound, as the illusive ornaments rain down like severed heads.
The clock chimes once, twice, thrice, again and again. Twelve times the bells ring, marking each hour of ignorance that has led us to this point.
I stare out at the hundreds of bodies, each one perfectly frozen like a figure in a music box that has reached the end of its revolution. They stare back at me, a sea of identical faces unmasked.
I turn in a circle slowly. The horde sways along. We survey the room.
We’re surrounded by the carnage of indulgence, walls lined with the reflections of every facet of the self. There’s horror in the beauty, beauty in the horror. It’s all clear now. I don’t know whether to laugh or weep.
Eventually the music starts up again; the hall reanimates, each piece instantaneously coming back to life like an unpaused film. My partner offers up a gloved hand. The orchestra wails its discordant tune, the beautiful dissonance possessing our hollow bones.
My feet are now bare. As we spin as one, the serrated stage of shattered illusion slices and tears at my sole.
I dance among the chaos of my own making.