From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Masks of War

Old Mrs. Winters held up the mirror, giving the young sergeant the first glimpse of the tin mask that covered his face. Her bird-bright eyes twinkled. “Well, how does it look?”

The sergeant stared at the mirror. Beneath the spectacles affixing the mask to his face, the painted features looked surprisingly life-like. From where he stood a few feet behind the sergeant, Lieutenant Grey watched the reflection in the glass as the young man’s fingers reached up to stroke his new face, touching metal cheeks and the carefully glued-on mustache that matched his brown hair.

Like magic, some of the earlier recipients had called Mrs. Winter’s work. Now Grey thought he understood why. The mask hid ruined flesh, features so disfigured by burns that they bore no resemblance to the photograph the sergeant’s family had sent the hospital. With the mask in place, it was difficult to tell that the man had been burned at all.

“Does it look right?” Grey asked the sergeant, and then, “Does it look familiar?”

The sergeant’s tin gaze stayed fixed on the mirror’s reflection. “No,” he finally said in his husky voice–his throat damaged by the flames as well. “I don’t recognize…”

When his voice trailed off, Grey frowned. He’d hoped that seeing his own face again–not that featureless monstrosity–would help the sergeant regain his scattered memories. Unable to speak at first, Sergeant Willem Davies had been identified only by a tattoo: a red Welsh dragon flew across his shoulder. Since his arrival at the hospital, the young man had barely said a word. What had emerged had often been confused, or in Welsh and scattered bits of German. The doctors had some question as to whether the young man’s mental facilities were intact, but he had been compliant, and Mrs. Winters insisted that the mask would help him recover.

The sergeant sat back, his dark eyes blinking behind the mask. “I don’t recognize the face,” he said, “but there is something.”

His shoulders straightened, his whole carriage shifting as if his spirit had come flowing back into him. For the first time since the sergeant’s arrival at the hospital, Grey thought the man felt hope.

“That’s good, son,” the elderly painter said. She patted the young man’s shoulder and leaned over to whisper something into his ear.

The sergeant nodded and rose, picking up his cap as he did so. “Thank you, ma’am,” he told her solemnly.

The elderly painter walked the sergeant to the workroom door. Her curly white hair frizzed about her head like a halo in the workroom’s electric lights. Grey liked to imagine that before the Department was formed, she had quietly lived in her tiny cottage out in Cornwall, painting pictures of the flowers along the seashore cliffs. Her diminutive stature and frail manner made him concerned that she might be working too hard, but she seemed to thrive within these hidden walls.

The thick scent of paints and turpentine clung about the Department’s workrooms, and the smell of wet plaster, recalling childhood schoolrooms to Grey’s mind. They did not cater to children here, though, but to the living mementos of the Great War–the wounded. The ‘Tin Noses Shop’, as it was commonly called, was located in the Third London General Hospital. The artists and sculptors within preferred the proper name, the “Masks for Facial Disfigurements Department.”

The sergeant was only one of many who’d come through this workroom in the last several months seeking a new face. The night before the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry had waited in No Man’s Land while the artillery fired on the opposing German trenches–only some of the rounds fell short, and for several of the KSLI’s boys the Great War had ended that night, all unintended.

Grey didn’t know whether it would have been better to die there–or to be among the hundreds who died the next morning, pinned by the Germans’ machine guns. The first wave hadn’t gotten through the rows of barbed wire, and the succeeding waves provided easy targets for the Germans. At least those accidentally bombed in that trench had died quickly–all save the sergeant.

The three other bodies hadn’t been identifiable, blown to bits, their tin identification tags melted down to unreadable lumps by the intensity of the sudden flames. That the sergeant had survived at all was a miracle, only due to his being at the edge of the explosion’s field of destruction. That he’d lived past the first few days had been an even greater miracle. Most men with such burns generally succumbed within a week.

Grey settled on the abandoned stool with a grimace. He leaned his cane against the worktable and rubbed his aching knee with both hands. On Mrs. Winter’s worktable lay a plaster cast of the young soldier’s face, made when he’d first arrived at the hospital. Grey picked it up, recalling the ruined nose and lips. It had taken weeks for the sculptors to fit and refit the mask, molding it to the man’s face before the painter even began working to match the colors of cold tin to human flesh.

When the surgeons could do no more, the tin masks gave the wounded soldiers back the dignity stolen by machine gun or mortar round, Mrs. Winters had told him. They allowed them some chance of acceptance among their peers. Grey glanced down at the wooden leg he’d earned not long into the war. Not all that different, he reckoned, artifice to replace what he’d once had.

When she came tottering back to the table, Mrs. Winters turned her sharp eyes on Grey. “I believe that he should go out now, back to the family.”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Grey said with a sigh. Nothing would be the same for the young soldier.

It hadn’t been for him. Since his own injury, Grey had spent almost all his time among the wounded, reluctant to return to civilian life but useless in the field. So he had passed the last two years pushing young soldiers back out into the world, getting them back to their families, and back to jobs that would aid in the war effort.

The old woman patted Grey’s shoulder, making him feel like a boy. “This is his chance,” she said, “to go back, to make amends or care for things unfinished. Perhaps just to start anew.” She nodded for a second, and then laid a surprisingly steady hand on Grey’s shoulder. “It will be his choice in the end, though. Not yours. Remember that.”

#

Other passengers on the morning train doffed their hats and caps at the sight of two returned soldiers, apparently fooled by the sergeant’s tin mask. None seemed to suspect the war wounds hidden behind it.

They took a seat across from two other men in uniform, Royal Welch Fusiliers on their way back home, heading on through to Swansea, they claimed. One had a bulky plaster covering his arm and shoulder, the other a bandage swaddling his head and hiding one eye. Both seemed prepared to sleep all the way to Cardiff, bundled into their overcoats against the winter’s chill.

“Has your family written back to you?” Grey asked the sergeant as the train jolted into motion. The whistle shrieked and great clouds of steam puffed out around the cars.

Davies nodded. “Yes. It’ll be good to see them. There’s a girl I must see,” he added.

Davies had family in St. Fagans, Grey knew, a village not far out of Cardiff. He glanced over at the tin face, marveling again at how life-like the mask seemed. “What’s her name?”

“Aderyn Prosser,” Davies said. “Dunn, by now, though.”

Grey heard a touch of remorse in that husky voice. “Girlfriend?”

“Prettiest girl in St. Fagans,” Davies said. “Was my girlfriend. Got her letter the day before I was wounded.”

That seemed to sum it up. Grey politely turned his attention to the wintry bustle of London as the train passed through the edges of the city, all too sympathetic to the pain Davies must feel.

#

After a flurry of exclamations and tears, during which Grey kept his distance, the couple invited him inside along with their son. Mr. and Mrs. Davies had the dark eyes and nut-brown skin characteristic of so many of the Welsh boys he’d encountered in the last few years. They were older than Grey expected, though, and seemed fragile.

A photograph on the mantel of their smallish house showed them with two sons. The sergeant must have been only seventeen or eighteen then, dressed in his Sunday best. An older boy stood with his arm about their father’s stooped shoulders, taller than Sergeant Davies and darker. A young lady stood at the sergeant’s side.

“That’s Aderyn,” Mrs. Davies said softly, glancing about first as if to be certain her son had gone into another room. “She married only a couple of weeks ago.”

“Yes. He mentioned her to me.”

“She couldn’t wait any longer.” The woman sighed. “Would you like to join us for a cup? Willem says the two of you will have to head back soon.”

Grey mumbled his consent, trying to keep the surprise from his face. He’d expected to leave Davies there with his family. Instead, he followed Mrs. Davies into a small sitting room, with flowered couches and crocheted antimacassars on the arms and back, a very feminine room. Davies sat inside, speaking with his father in a voice too low for Grey to catch. They spoke in Welsh anyway, Grey realized then.

“I was with the Coldstream Guards in ’14,” he said when Mrs. Davies asked after his cane as she handed him a cup of tea. She hadn’t recognized the uniform or the capstar on his cap, but that didn’t surprise him. Most of the local boys served with the KSLI. “Been helping get the wounded about London since,” he added.

She smiled at him, eyes brimming with gratitude. “And you brought Willem for a visit. How kind of you to accompany him.”

A visit? Grey wondered if the woman hadn’t understood the severity of her son’s injuries. He glanced over at the unmoving features of Davies’ tin mask.

“I didn’t realize he intended to return to London,” he said. At her quizzical look, he added, “Immediately, I meant.”

“Ah, Willem told us he’d need to head on back soon. I expect the 7th boys will be moving out again?”

Grey cast back in his mind, trying to recall where that unit had gone since the failed attack on Serre. Surely none of them had come home save those horribly wounded like the sergeant–or the dead. He took a steadying sip of tea, and said, “I expect so, Ma’am.”

A knock on the house’s front door spared Grey from further bewildering conversation. Mrs. Davies excused herself and went to answer it, returning a moment later with a young woman–none other than the girl from the photograph.

She was as pretty as Davies claimed, her dark hair tucked up inside a snood. She clutched her pocketbook with both hands, and her delicate features were creased with worry.

Grey could well understand. How awkward it must be for her to come here to face the man for whom she hadn’t waited. Even so, Davies rose and went to speak with her, drawing her into the small sitting room on the other side of the hallway.

Grey watched them go, thinking of his own fiancé, Rose, as they disappeared behind the edge of the white-painted door. He had written to Rose to release her from their engagement. She was so beautiful; Grey knew a crippled man would never do for her husband. So he had ended it before she even learned of his loss, wanting to spare her the pain of a moment like this. Hardly a day passed, though, when he didn’t see her face in his mind’s eye and wonder if she’d married another man yet.

Mrs. Davies brought him another cup of tea and regaled him with a story about their elder son, serving as a doctor on the Belgian front. Grey smiled and nodded attentively, but his mind fretted over what must be going on in the other room.

Aderyn returned a moment later, clutching a lace-edged handkerchief in one hand, a smile lighting her pretty face. Davies stood behind her. Evidently, all was well now.

The girl came into the room to make her farewells. She kissed Mrs. Davies on one lined cheek and then, pausing next to the sergeant, leaned up to place a kiss on his metal cheek as well, almost as if unaware of what it hid. “Thank you, Willem,” she said, and slipped out past him.

“Was good of you, son, to forgive her,” his mother said after they heard the front door close. “She’s been that upset the last few weeks.”

“If I love her, what else could I say?” Davies asked. “We need to leave now, Mum.”

Tearful good-byes followed, along with promises to write when possible–the best a soldier could offer.

Grey waited outside impatiently. Only once they walked along the street, beyond the sight of the man’s tearful parents, did he ask what the sergeant had in mind. “You know that you can’t go back on active duty, don’t you, Davies?”

Davies stopped. He turned to face Grey, the afternoon sunlight slanting across the tin mask. “Sir? What are you talking about?”

Grey just stared, too startled to frame a coherent reply. The face painted on the tin mask wasn’t the one he’d watched on the trip out from London. Somehow it had changed, narrower and fairer-colored. The mustache was gone as well, revealing a finely molded tin lip. “Davies?”

The eyebrows on the mask couldn’t raise to show surprise, but the pale eyes beneath narrowed. “Lieutenant Grey? Are you unwell, sir? You called me Davies.”

Grey clutched his cane. “What did you expect me to call you, then?”

“Randolph, sir. Private Randolph. Have you forgotten? Davies is dead, sir.”

#

Grey’s foot ached from all the walking the day before–the foot that was gone. Nothing he could do about that, so he left the doctor to his examination of Davies/Randolph and went to find Mrs. Winters.

“How could a mask have changed?” she asked him, pottering by with a new mask in her hand. Half-painted, this one had been made to cover only the space where one eye had been put out, along with the part of a cheek. “It’s merely tin and paint, Lieutenant.”

“Do you have the plaster mold still?” he asked. That should prove that Davies’ mask had altered somehow.

Sighing, she retreated into the sculptors’ workroom and plucked the plaster mask off a wall. She brought it back, and then lifted the lorgnette that hung from a chain around her neck and peered at it through the lenses. “See, Lieutenant…”

He took it from her. The mask matched the general shape of the face of the young man he’d escorted back on the train, but the burned features, lipless and with the nose half-missing, made further identification impossible. Grey set the thing on her work desk. On the reverse side, someone had written “John Randolph” in pencil.

He sighed. “Did you ever see his tattoo? The dragon on his left shoulder?”

Mrs. Winters settled in her chair and picked up a slender brush, giving the new mask a critical gaze. “Lieutenant,” she said in a stern voice, “that’s not my place. Now, is it?”

He’d been put in his place, Grey thought. Unfortunately, the doctor who’d taken charge of the young soldier the previous night said Davies/Randolph had no tattoo. Only burned skin covered the man’s left shoulder, robbing them of the one tell-tale they’d used to identify him before.

“Shouldn’t young Randolph be heading back to his family soon?” Mrs. Winters asked brightly.

Grey ran a hand through his short-cropped hair and resisted the urge to glare at the woman. His great-aunt Morag had been just the same, soft-spoken but somehow always getting exactly what she wanted. Mrs. Winters just smiled at him in a benign fashion. Grey grabbed up his cap and cane and began his search for a doctor to sign the release form.

#

Home, for Private Randolph, turned out to be Shrewsbury. Grey sat silently next to the young man in the railcar, watching the private gaze out the window at the passing countryside. Occasionally the private would point out some landmark in the snow, disclaiming over it in a merry way.

Randolph had a far different demeanor than Davies, which only added to Grey’s uneasiness. The private was talkative, with a happy voice that sounded higher than before. His accent was different as well. His gloved hands moved when he spoke, distracting the listener’s eyes from the mask’s unmoving lips.

Perhaps they had simply misunderstood all along, Grey kept saying to himself. Perhaps the tattoo hadn’t ever been there. No other sensible explanation worked.

“So, have you been home lately, sir?” the private asked, dragging Grey away from his thoughts.

Grey wasn’t certain he wanted to converse with this changed man but shifted to return his gaze. “No, I’ve not.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir,” Randolph went on, “where would home be for you?”

“Berwick-upon-Tweed,” Grey said. When that didn’t receive an immediate response, he added, “It’s in Northumberland, just shy of the border.”

“I thought you sounded Scottish,” Randolph said with a shrug. “Or something close. So, you were with the Coldstream Guards, sir?”

His uniform made that obvious, so Grey nodded. It became a one-sided interrogation, Randolph questioning him about his family and home. Grey answered dutifully, wondering all the while how much longer the train would take to reach Shrewsbury.

As they finally pulled into the station, Randolph asked, “Why haven’t you gone home, sir?”

“Not your concern, private,” Grey snapped, and immediately regretted it.

And for a moment, he nearly told the truth. That he didn’t want to go back to Berwick to see if Rose had married someone else like Davies’ girl had. He didn’t want to return to his sister a broken man, useless on the family farm because he couldn’t walk from one end of the land to another. He didn’t want to go back home only to have his nightmares follow him.

He couldn’t return to regular service; he wasn’t really a Coldstreamer any longer. Going there would only make his fall from grace all the more obvious. “I’m just not ready to go home, private,” he managed in a more civil tone.

The train groaned into the station, and people began gathering their bags. “Perhaps someday soon,” Randolph said in his mercilessly happy voice.

#

Their destination turned out to be a flat in the twisted old streets and shuts of Shrewsbury’s town center, a series of ancient Tudor buildings. The only surviving member of his family, Randolph’s older sister lived on the third floor above a chemist’s shop in Butcher Lane.

Her husband had gone out with the KSLI as well–Randolph explained as they climbed the narrow stairs–leaving her with an infant daughter. Her job at a milliner’s shop kept them in their home, but not much more.

A frazzled-looking woman answered the door when Randolph knocked. Bound up in a hasty knot, her hair was a darker shade than the private’s. Otherwise, the resemblance between her and her brother was marked, the same narrow features and thin build.

She burst into tears and threw her arms about him. “We thought you were dead for sure, Johnny.”

The young man patted her back. “Now, stop that, Annie.”

After wiping her cheeks, the woman drew him inside. She added a belated invitation to Grey, but her eyes stayed on the young private.

Grey followed, settling on a wooden chair at the edge of the shabby sitting room. His stump ached too much with the cold to allow him to wait for permission. A faded settee rested near the window and a child’s chair sat nearby, where they could all gather around the radio ensconced before the lace-curtained window. Cold seemed to emanate from the glass, the whole flat too chilly for comfort.

“Have you seen Philip at all?” the woman asked. Like Sergeant Davies’ parents, she seemed oblivious to the mask her brother wore. “All I hear is that he’s still in hospital.”

“He’ll be fine, Annie. I know it.” Randolph patted his sister’s shoulder. The gesture reminded Grey eerily of Mrs. Winters. “He’ll be coming home soon, I think.”

“Do you…” She paused and glanced guiltily at Grey.

“This is Lieutenant Grey, Annie.” Randolph told her, making a belated introduction. “My sister, Anne Winston. He just wanted to come out from London for a bit.”

Grey nodded to her. “Ma’am.”

She turned back to her brother. “Do you know something?”

“Just a feeling I have, Annie. That’s all.” He took her hands. “You know he didn’t join up just to spite you. He didn’t. You have to forgive him for doing it.”

“I know,” she whispered.

A hand tugged on Grey’s trouser leg. He looked down to see a small, pixie-faced girl with pale flyaway hair gazing up at him. “Are you my daddy?”

He wondered if she asked every man in uniform that question. She didn’t look to be more than three or four. If her father had left when Grey had, she would have been in her cradle still. “No, miss. I’m your uncle’s escort.”

The child looked crestfallen, but then she brightened. “Would you like to see my dollies? Daddy sent ’em to me.”

He nodded, and she scampered away. He glanced back at the brother and sister. They were locked in a conversation that didn’t concern him anyway, so for the next half hour, he dutifully admired a handful of cheap dolls shipped from the shores of France and Belgium over the past few years.

At Grey’s insistence, they ate dinner at a small café nearby. He had seen enough of Mrs. Winston’s home to know money was short in that household. If he and Rose had married, her case might not be much better, he suspected.

Grey wasn’t completely taken by surprise when the private told his sister he had to head back to London. An afternoon’s visit, he claimed, was all the time he had.

“Phil tried to keep an eye on me,” Randolph said. “He didn’t sign on to hurt you, Annie, but to protect you. You and Milly, both.”

She nodded and wiped a misty eye. “I understand that.”

He set one hand on either shoulder. “He’ll need you to be there for him. Don’t forget that, hear?”

She threw her arms around him. “You come home soon, too.”

“I can’t promise that,” he said, and disentangled himself from her arms. Then he tousled the little girl’s hair. “We should go now,” he said to Grey, pointing at a clock in the café kitchen.

As they walked back toward the train station, Grey kept his eyes on Private Randolph. Only once they had settled in seats on the returning train did he begin to believe that nothing odd was going to happen.

“Why are you returning to London?” Grey asked after a while.

“Well, we need to head back to the hospital,” Randolph said. “I’ve got something to take care of there. Don’t you have other wounded to escort, sir?”

“Not at the moment,” Grey admitted. “If I might ask, what was all that about your brother-in-law signing up? Did your sister not want him to go?”

“She wrote to me about it sometimes, how tough things are right now. She didn’t want either of us to go, but we had to. You know how that is, sir.”

His own sister hadn’t wanted him to go either, not and leave the farm to her alone. It was difficult for many of the women left behind, particularly those with young children. “Yes, I suppose I do.”

Randolph seemed inclined to sleep now, so Grey settled against the window, watching the silhouettes of the night-darkened countryside flow by. The rattling of the train lulled him until he slept there, his face pressed against the chilly window.

#

A hand shaking his shoulder woke him, and Grey blinked blearily for a second.

He’d actually slept for the first time in months. He hadn’t dreamt of that retreat toward Gheluvelt, his men dying everywhere about him. Hadn’t dreamt of trying to walk only to fall down when there was no foot left to support him. Hadn’t dreamt of lying in the mud, wondering if a medic would get to him in time–or at all–and hearing Private McCreedy nearby bellowing in pain.

He had simply slept–a minor miracle of sorts.

Grey gazed up at the unknown man standing over him, and for a second wondered where Randolph had gotten off to. Only the man standing over him wore a tin mask, painted to mimic the dusky shade of his skin. “Sir, we have to get off here.”

Grey closed his eyes again, took a deep breath, and then opened them. “Private Braith?”

“Yes, sir?”

Grey didn’t know what to make of this turn, but he doubted anyone at the hospital would either–except perhaps one elderly painter.

According to the medics, there had been four men in that trench. Only one had been alive, the others so mutilated–blown apart–that no confirmation could be made of their identities. Others from the unit had supplied the name of three who’d been in that area, though: Davies, Randolph and Braith. About the fourth, the medics had no idea. There had been so many dead the next day that many of the boys had gone unaccounted for. Months later, they were still trying to clean up the mess of identifying the dead and notifying their families.

“Am I supposed to go with you?” Grey asked after a numb moment.

“Well, there’s something I need to take care of at hospital, sir.”

Braith had no family left, Grey knew. In the midst of the confusion over Davies and Randolph, he’d decided to research the last man whose name they knew. Braith had no one, no wife, no sister to apologize to, no intended to seek out. So Grey followed the soldier, wondering whom the man intended to see.

Braith made his unfaltering way to one of the hospital’s wards. A dark-haired man lay in a bed there, looking for all the world as if he were dead. He stared vacantly at the ceiling. Faded flowers stood in a vase on the bedside table next to a stack of magazines that looked untouched.

Grey didn’t see any obvious wounds, and wondered if the man’s troubles might be those of the psyche. He was surprised that the man hadn’t been transferred out to an asylum.

Then he noted the bandages peeking out from under the sleeves of the man’s hospital gown. They covered his wrists, offering the possibility that the man might have been sent back to hospital, perhaps for his own safety.

The young soldier pulled over a chair. He sat down next to the unmoving patient and patted his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault those boys died, you know. Not yours at all, sir.”

The man didn’t respond.

Grey started when a doctor approached him and asked, “Who is that?”

“Private Braith,” Grey said.

“Does he know Private Winston?” the doctor whispered.

That name rattled through Grey’s head. “I don’t actually know. He just said he needed to talk to him. Where did Winston serve?”

“Artillery, under Haig,” the doctor supplied.

“Would he have been at Bazentin Ridge?”

The doctor folded white-coated arms over his chest and nodded. “Invalided out a month later, unable to cope. Been in the sanitarium since. Danger to himself.”

There were many, Grey knew, who’d returned disfigured by the War–but some bore wounds of the heart and mind, rather than those visible to the eyes. Braith continued talking, his hand on the artilleryman’s shoulder.

It seemed impossible that the man in front of them could have been in the artillery squad who’d unintentionally bombed the trench in which Braith and his friends died. But given the fact that he wasn’t certain Braith was alive at all, Grey didn’t want to discount the possibility.

“You see,” Braith continued, “it wasn’t the artillery. It was a grenade. We were waiting there, and then the next thing we know this man falls into our trench. A German, would you believe it, only he looked as terrified as we were, just a kid. Davies was the only one who spoke any German, so he tried talking to him. I was all for shooting him. I got one of my grenades in my hand, just in case. Then Davies told us the German kid wanted to surrender.”

The artillery man’s eyes didn’t move, but he blinked–the first motion Grey had seen on his part.

Braith went on. “The shell didn’t hit our trench, but it hit close enough to throw us all back. I lost the grenade and we couldn’t get out in time. That’s what killed us, not you. You were just doing your duty, like we all were. It’s not your fault you survived and we didn’t.”

Grey leaned heavily on his cane, not wanting to move away to fetch a chair and risk missing Braith’s words.

The artillery man shook his head then, “There were others.”

“But not your brother-in-law. That was my doing. I didn’t mean for any of us to die, not Johnny, not Willem, but I did that, not you.”

Winston’s eyes began to run, and he wiped at his eyes with one bandaged wrist.

Braith patted his shoulder one last time, and then rose, coming back to where Grey stood with the nonplussed doctor. He reached up and removed the mask, gazing down at it like he’d never seen it before. For a moment, Grey saw Braith standing there, whole and unharmed like the picture they’d received from the young man’s school. Then the image seemed to fade away, and Braith shivered as if a chill wind touched him.

The man holding the mask lifted his eyes to meet Grey’s. Blond hair framed a very young face mostly unmarked by fire. A jagged scar ran down one pale cheek–a shrapnel wound.

Grey guessed that he couldn’t be more than seventeen. After a moment of stunned silence, he found his voice and said, “You’ll be taken to a prisoner-of-war camp.”

The boy shook his head, not in denial but a lack of understanding. With his free hand, he touched his scarred cheek.

Grey turned to the doctor. “Is there an interpreter here? Who speaks fluent German, I mean?”

The doctor gave him a confused look, but bustled away.

“You are a prisoner,” Grey said in his own sketchy German.

The boy looked resigned–and a tad relieved–at those words. Grey reflected that he’d gotten what he wanted all along. The young man glanced down at the mask in his hand, and then handed it over. Grey just tucked it under his arm and waited for the translator to come.

The boy never made any attempt to get away.

#

In the cold light of the workroom, Mrs. Winters lifted a mask from a soldier’s face, the same one Grey had seen her working on a few days ago. The soldier’s left eye had been lost. The empty, ruined socket was clearly beyond the ability of a surgeon to repair, making him a perfect candidate for the Department’s special help.

Grey waited until the soldier left. Save for Mrs. Winters, the shop was abandoned, so Grey settled on a stool as she cleaned her brushes. “Did you know he was a German?” he asked.

“They’re all such brave boys, you know. Yes, even them,” she added when he opened his mouth to protest. She peered at one fine-tipped brush and gave it another swipe with a cloth. “It’s what we do here. We give them back their dignity. A chance to go back into society as the equals of other men. To go back and fit in, or to start over again. Whichever is the right path.”

“Did you know, ma’am?” he persisted.

She smiled in that fashion elderly ladies have, and patted him on the shoulder. “I only know what I’m told, son.”

He scowled at her, wondering if her reputation for magic truly was earned.

“Lieutenant,” she added with a sidelong glance, “that boy was willing, you know. The others might have been able to appear because of the mask, but the boy couldn’t have carried them all back here unless he wanted to help them. I wonder if a prison camp might not be the wrong place for such a kind soul. Couldn’t your sister use an extra set of hands on the family farm?” She glanced downward. “Or legs?”

Grey’s jaw clenched. “Things can’t go back to the way they were.”

“No,” she agreed. “They never can.” She gestured at the mask he still had under his arm. “Are you going to keep that? Do you really think you need it?”

Grey pulled the mask from under his arm, glancing at it before he handed it to her. The features weren’t Braith’s any longer. His own face stared up at him.

“I can give that to another soldier,” she went on, wiping a brush on a cloth, “who might need it more than you. But if you need it to give you the strength to go home, Lieutenant, I’m willing to let you keep it for a while.”

He couldn’t go back to what had been. He’d changed too much, seen too much death, lost too many of his men. But he could go back and try to make amends–to start over. He laid the mask on her worktable and, even as his fingers slid away, the features changed, arranging themselves into a face he hasn’t seen before.

Mrs. Winters’ eyes sparkled. “Ah, he’ll be coming in tomorrow.”

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus. Her works have been published or forthcoming in Shimmer, The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe 2, and Writers of the Future XXIV, among others. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com.

Tagged as: