The Masked Joy
R. F. Grant
Nestled between a graveyard and community garden, an idyllic house stood alongside a macadam road. Flower boxes bubbled out from beneath its windowpanes, a high-set roof with a narrow point shading its siding. Coated in ochre and crimson, these outer walls radiated a colorful charm common to the streets of Rothenburg. And within it, the elderly Wrights quietly sat, abjectly nostalgic.
Clarise. Her words stung like a wasp, often spoken from pursed lips. She carried a wisp of a body, one which bent and curved in ways others could not. This was due to her past as a contortionist, some claimed. Others laughed at the abstraction, stating she’d been born with an osteitic disease. Oftentimes, others spotted the woman sitting behind a window in her home. Though she never knew it, passersby saw beyond the reflective glint upon a face which seemed neither apathetic nor glad—perhaps the very reason for its intrigue. Rumor aside, however, one avoided talking about Clarise in public. She’d materialize—for lack of better words—nearby at the oddest of moments, like a spider springing from an open cupboard; a puppeteer of Murphy’s Law rather than a victim to it.
Gottfried. A sense of complexity existed behind the man’s eyes. Not a wisdom earned through hardship, but one placed there by God; a profundity born in him. Eyes are gateways to the soul they say, and Gottfried’s poured from his own in an inexorable way. Their gaze influenced the sentiment of anyone sparing a closer look, a moment of conversation. Like-minded people who crossed paths with the man often found themselves arguing over their color. Some affirmed a mossy-grey green, like the seraphinite mined in Siberia. Others said cobalt and steel, like flint and lapis. The man often appeared as a nachzehrer in broad daylight, roaming between reality and mind, indecisive on which to choose. The great irony of Gottfried, however, was his blatantly obvious comb-over. He applied princely amounts of oil to his hair every morning—a witty disposition to the otherwise somber man. And always, always that smoldering cigarette. It dangled from the cleft of his mouth, lips cracked from old age and dry weather. Outside on the steps of that idyllic house, just as the argent dawn pierced its way between the Bavarian mountain-crests eastward, Gottfried would light his first cigarette of the day. Thereupon he smoked, staring out over slated roofs and chimneys, the horizon blushing into another day of light and life.
The glory of years past had befallen the couple in recent days. Or perhaps it had befallen years ago, today being its finality, its moment of acceptance. It crept upon their conscience that routine morning. They sat at their dining table, lost in a nostalgia common to those in the last years of life; a clinging to the many identities of the past. History and clarity seemed now to trickle between their fingers, growing insoluble like the many memories of childhood.
“We should’ve bought that seaside property,” Clarise said. “Do you remember it? The one in Portugal?”
“I cannot believe—” she continued, “—we decided to retire here. Germany of all places. Bloody Germany. A proper English couple should’ve been more wary.”
“Rothenburg was beautiful to us once, you know,” he said, setting his paper down.
“Seems hard to believe. I just wish we would’ve chose differently. All the paths we took in life—do you ever feel we’re in a place we never thought we’d be?”
“We still have plenty of years ahead of us.”
“Enough for change?” she asked, her tension loitering. Her tone fell to that of a dormouse’s, as if the question peeked around a frightening ingress—an innocent side to her only Gottfried saw.
“Yes, enough for change,” he answered, frank. He continued to read his paper. His wife sighed and took an impatient sip from her teacup. It’d been the fourth morning brew. The steamy scent of chamomile and skullcap now pirouetted around the house like a ghost made of potpourri, juddering and shivering its herbal garnish throughout various rooms.
“You’re not taking me seriously,” she harried. Gottfried glanced at her.
“Is this something you’d like to discuss?”
“Perhaps it is, yes.”
“Let’s go for a walk, then. Eastward. Past the graveyard, down to the park.”
“No. The larger one. Gaertner.”
Clarise half-nodded. She rose and proceeded towards the coatrack, her legs swaying like a giraffe’s. Sunlight sheared the wintry clouds that day beyond the window. Its pillars plummeted through them towards a sparkling, white earth. Readying themselves, the couple dressed in thick clothing as colorful as the buildings of their town. Breaking into the crisp air, their conversation gradually continued.
“Do you remember that little moped we bought in Liverpool? The crème and magenta one?”
“Of course. We were only pups then. Early twenties.”
“Yes. We were so joyous, too.”
Gottfried thought about it.
“Those silly helmets. They must’ve been three sizes too large for our heads. Cue balls at best.”
Clarise beamed at him.
“And our month-long trip to the cliffs of Positano—in Naples?”
“We were so tan we looked like the locals.”
“—not a care in the world,” she added. They both laughed together. A silence.
“Our first house. How about it?”
“Had so many problems you’d think it was cursed.”
“And yet, we loved it so.”
Another pause—one so drawn out, there seemed to be an elephant in the room.
“What happened to us?” Clarise then asked. Gottfried stopped to look at her.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we lost something. An innocence. A blind faith, perhaps.” Her sense of unnerve returned again. “All we do now is worry about the inevitable. Death, mostly. How the family will react. What we’ll say in our will. It’s dreadful. All of it.”
Though Gottfried knew what she meant, he said nothing.
The couple continued on, soon arriving at Gaertner. Children were there, uncommon to Eichman not so far away. They bounced around in the snow, lobbing snowballs at one another. A snowman was halfway-built towards the middle. Two boys packed at its body, intent on its shape like little architects. The Wrights took a seat on a nearby bench and began observing.
“We never had children,” Clarise said after a pause. “Do you regret that?”
“Some days I do. Some I don’t.”
“I often wonder what would’ve happened if we didn’t end up wealthy. With children, it might’ve been a scary place to be in.”
“You think too much about the what-if’s, Clarise. Sometimes it’s—”
At that very moment, a snowball struck Gottfried in the back of the head. The old man stagnated. Turning around, he reared an ugly expression at the children behind him. Their faces rested there in his vision, red as apples, ready to point fingers. Gottfried, however, relaxed. He released his bulldoggish complexion into one unperturbed. What had happened next, however-- simple as it may be—forever changed the gossip of fellow Rothenburgians.
Gottfried rose from the bench of his sitting. Clarise fell silent. She eyed him, frozen, her lips as tight as a knot. The old man bent towards the earth. He gathered an enormous ball of snow into his hands. Then, much like a trebuchet, he poised back. To one knee he bent, like an Olympian shot-putter, releasing the great glob of snow. It cascaded across the sky like a medieval arrow, directly towards the pack of children.
A vast silence followed. Seconds dawdled past, each minute a drip of crystallized honey into the mouth of Father Time. The children couldn’t believe their eyes; the English grump from 23rd street had chucked a snowball. Had the planets aligned? They looked to the snowball midair, then back to the man, then to the snowball. Instantly, they scattered like field-rats from a hawk. A gigantic grin grew upon Gottfried’s face as he witnessed this, a sparkle shining in his eyes.
“Gottfried!” Clarise shushed at him.
“Come on, you old bat!” he joked at her. The snowballs began hissing past them like sideways hail. The couple ducked behind their bench.
“What are you doing, Gottfried!” she cried again.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m playing!” he shouted. Bits of snow and ice sprayed around them like shrapnel. He ducked another missile, gathering snow into his polyester mitts. Clarise groaned.
“Playing? Why, we’re too old for such things! What will the locals think? What about the neighbors? We’ll be dragged away to the looney bin! Our backs will break like twigs! They’ll say we’ve suffered an irreversible bout of Alzheimer’s! Why, we’ll—”
Right then, the largest snowball of the entire bunch slapped into Clarise’s cheek. Her expression drooped into shock. She appeared star-struck, like someone who’d just staggered home from a war. A grave-robber who stumbled upon the largest treasure of their lives—one of Egyptian proportions. Reality was ripped from her. And oddly at this, ever so oddly, the thin woman smiled. She turned her head to peer at her husband. There he was, laughing like the children around him, the playfulness of God in his eyes. She began to scrutinize the concaved earth. It appeared like little mountains for fairies, her imagination gone terribly awry; and all from a snowball. Her guarded, inner walls came crashing down. Walls which thickened and hardened all those years, molding her temperament into one of bitterness. She let go in that moment. She could do nothing else.
“Take this, you slobbering buffoons!” she shouted out. “You scoundrels! You fools! You throw snowballs? I throw mountains!”
She sprang up and dove into no-man’s land. Snowballs flew from her palms by the dozen, as if the elated spirit of youth had suddenly brought life into her limbs. Gottfried exploded into laughter, watching his wife fall into the snow, children piling atop her. Neighbors crept from their homes, observing the unusual scene. Yes, it was the intimidating Clarise, playing with children. And there, the somber Gottfried, laughing and clutching his belly as if Gelos himself possessed him. Such an event hadn’t occurred in years. Not in Rothenburg, you see, that quaint little town of quiet people.
Rumors spread like wildfire after that day. The idyllic house on 23rd was left vacant to dust and mice, teacups and china. Due to its vacancy, rumors slowly became legend. The people of Rothenburg hadn’t heard from the elderly Wrights again. Some said the couple packed their necessities, hiking away to foreign lands with what years they had left. Others said the joy they witnessed in their faces was too much for any rational woman or man. That it caused them to disappear into the light and walk with God, like the father of Methuselah. But somehow, those in Rothenburg knew deep inside of them—a place visited only in the depths of sleep, where dreams flirted with actuality; a place familiar to the soul—that they had found the hidden joy. They’d found the great secret in a world disenchanted, a trove of spiritual truth beneath the adulterated façade; one of paper mail and passing cars. Of boulangeries and briefcases, busy-bodies and business suits. Clarise, that woman whose words stung like a wasp. Gottfried, that man of somber eyes, ever-changing.
About the author:
A published author of fiction and poetry, R. F. Grant's stories emphasize the strength of the human spirit, explore ethical paradoxes, and are oftentimes about the nature of our spiritual reality. For excerpts, a list of publications, and information, go here.