The story will be told by the young and by the old, many times this night, of the nine gods in masquerade. And it seems to me, that most of these storytellers have only pieces of a greater puzzle.
The masquerade is an ancient custom, they say. They all say that. And that part is right.
It’s the one night when the gods, in disguise, walk among the mortals, they say.
We all know there’s no such things as gods. Only ancestors, some of whom knew more and better than we do, and some of whom knew less and worse.
I have a masquerade tale you may not have heard before, especially if you’re new to the islands.
I’ll speak, if you’re interested, stay silent if you’re not.
You are interested?
Very well then, listen and heed.
Gods…yes, for the telling of the tale, let us call them “gods.” The nine little gods…
The nine little gods were all that were left after the great wars among the greater gods were done, and those greater gods were all gone, giving way to a new cosmos in which there still remained signs of the old. Scattered remnants of their glassy shields were the stars. And each eye of each god changed form and became a new world, spinning in the spaces of that new cosmos. Some of the new worlds were inhospitable to the rising of new life, being made of noxious and diffuse vapors.
(Such worlds were made from the eye of one of the wickeder gods, if you were to ask me.)
Other gods’ eye remnants hardened and compressed, became rocky, but still barren, capable of providing for life perhaps, in some future eon, if that life was hardy, or if it arrived with its own powers to provide for its own self.
And some of these remnants became rich worlds, on which many different kinds of new and fragile life could grow. One of the most magnificent of these would come to be known as Earth.
The god from whose eye Earth was made had so many skills and talents that her world gave rise to many different wonders, including an abundance of creatures, some whom lived for only a breath and a blink, and some whose lives stretched for an age.
Seeing what had become of their warmongering predecessors, the nine little gods—who called themselves “little” to remind themselves to be humble—formed a pact to remain at peace for the balance of their lives, and to teach that peace to as many other creatures and beings as they could.
They went to Earth. None of them had any relation to the god who gave her eye to make Earth. But they saw how the world teemed with life. And they saw that there were many great tracts of land. But they chose an island on which to live. Their sight was long enough to see that that the one island would one day become nine, of equal span. And so they could live together and grow their bonds, and then they could live apart to develop and then teach their individual skills and talents.
(Ah, what a joy it is to live apart!)
In time, there came into the world and onto Earth a being that both charmed and worried the nine little gods, the human being. The nine little gods noted that the human being’s form and nature was similar to their own. But they also noted that of all the creatures who had lived in the world, human beings could not withstand the countenance of the gods. They were unable to look upon the face of a god without having their eyes burned out or their souls turned inside out from the effort of comprehending what those eyes were seeing—or did manage to see before burning out.
The gods could only appear to humans in dreams, or as shadow and fog, or through an intermediary, such as a crow or a serpent or a hound. But time and again, the human people spoke of their desire to have the gods walk freely among them as they freely walked among the other mortal creatures of the world.
So the nine little gods devised a plan. They would forge masks for themselves, designed by the great blacksmith among them. The forging of each mask would take a year, and would take the labor of all the gods. So they went into seclusion, proclaiming that they would emerge after all the masks were completed.
And so, none of the gods were heard from or seen for nine years.
The human people went about their lives, failing and prospering as they had before.
But they came to miss the gods. They came to regret that in their desire to see the gods and to be in their material presence, they no longer had even what little of the gods’ presence as they had before. No more shadow or fog. No more dreams, or sweet songs echoing from the distance under crescent-moon-nights.
Though their hearts were sick with longing, they also began to fill with hope when the ninth year was upon them.
They prepared a great feast and a parade to show the gods their appreciation and their welcome. To celebrate the first of many occasions when the gods would truly walk among them.
The nine little gods emerged from their seclusion.
Though their faces were covered, the masks they wore were so magnificent, it was still arduous for most to look upon them. One mask was of gleaming gold and florid with jewels. Another was painted with stars that sparkled in many colors. Still another bloomed with fresh flowers whose petals dropped and spread a heady fragrance through the humid air. And still another bore an ornate pattern of symmetrical fractures bordered by shards of silver metal feathers that fanned, flared, fluttered, and folded on their own. The masks were radiant, truly. And their wearers were welcome, dearly.
The nine little gods were honored all night long.
They wanted for nothing. Food, drink, partners to dance with, musicians to play with. Games of chance and games of skill. Such wonder, such spectacle. Who wouldn’t want to be in the midst of such a grand gathering?
(I wouldn’t. That’s who!)
More than one of them admitted to someone at some point during the night, when even the gods had drunk enough to feel somewhat tipsy, that they felt apart from everyone still. Their masks allowed them to walk amongst the human people without fear of harming anyone. But their masks marked them out as gods. How much better they would have enjoyed the night if they could truly melt away into the gathered throngs of people.
It was proposed that very night that the feast and the parade should be repeated the next year, with one difference. All the revelers would be encouraged to make and wear masks.
This they did. And while the nine little gods praised the valiant efforts of the human people, the plan did not work as hoped.
The masks made by the ordinary and the mortal were easy to distinguish from the magnificent masks of the gods. Even a child would be able to tell.
That magnificence was necessary. The masks of the gods were imbued with magic to contain their radiant countenances. Even if a god tried to shift their mask to look as plain as it could, the mask would still glow with the luminosity of the face beneath it.
For some years, the human people tried and failed to make masks by which they might fool themselves, if even for a few moments, so that the gods could walk freely among them.
One year, at the masquerade feast, the nine little gods made another proclamation.
They had grown older, and though they had many ages of life still ahead of them, they decided it was time to build a home for themselves in a different world. They would leave Earth every winter to see to the construction. They would return in the spring. It would take a long time to build their home, and in the meantime, they would teach everything they knew to the human people, as they had already begun to do.
The human people were dismayed. The only plan they could think to affect was to try and make more magnificent masks. They hoped that if the gods could truly walk among them, truly join them, perhaps they would not want to leave.
Then came the three.
There arose at the same time, three mask-makers of tremendous talent and significant skill. One of them made masks that were luminous and beautiful, glittering with jewels made of glass, but cut and crafted to appear real. One of them made masks so sturdy that even if the mask fell down and was trampled by a whole parade of people, it would not even be scuffed. And one of them made masks that were seared with spells. The spells produced dazzling effects like sparkling lights or shifting shadows, so that on the surface, they appeared to be imbued with holy magic. Separately, the three mask-makers added greatly to the quality of mortal-made masks.
The three learned of each other and came together.
They asked the permission of the gods, who freely granted it, and they attempted to combine their skills.
For many years, the mask-makers worked together, risking, failing, honing, and refining. At last, they came upon a design that they deemed was their best work, and might even serve at the masquerade feast of the nine little gods. So they gambled with the goodwill of their benefactors and created masks in the hundreds and thousands to give away to revelers.
The new mortal-made masks were so fantastical and magical that they could not easily be distinguished from the masks of the gods.
A few called it blasphemy.
(For we humans can be fools this way, don’t you agree? Seeking and seeking for wonder, and fearing it when we find it.)
But when the gods gave their public blessings, all was well.
The mask-makers were praised for their dazzling work.
But soon enough, those praises turned to curses.
The people noticed that the gods were not walking among them as often on ordinary days. They would only come to their own masquerade feast. The magic of the mortal-made masks did not last all night. The gods would be known at some time before morning. So it was noted that fewer and fewer of them attended as the years passed. The gods had told the human people of their plans to leave for their new abode. But all expected that the gods would announce when at last they would leave, at least to speak farewells. It was not to be so.
By the time people realized, it was too late. The gods had gone.
The mask-makers were blamed for making their masks so well that they masked the departure of the gods, an event that all had thought would be another magnificent feast day. No one imagined that the gods would depart so quietly.
But when their earthly abodes were approached and then searched, the nine little gods were nowhere to be found, and the signs all shown that they had gone.
The mask-makers fled, each going into individual hiding.
The tradition of the feast and the masquerade was broken. Without the gods to guide them and comfort them with their very presence, many people believed there was no point in having a celebration, and certainly no need to wear masks.
And then, a great blasphemy was committed.
(Though, I would not call it so.)
“Perhaps the gods made a mistake,” the mask-maker said. “Instead of merely telling us that we had the means to govern ourselves, they might have shown us.”
They were gathered in secret, the three mask-makers, to speak of the gods’ strange quiet parting from the world that had been their home since long before the human people were born.
The mask-makers spoke in whispers, hidden in a tavern corner on a winter’s night.
“But they did do so,” said another. “They taught us all they knew.”
“What if they weren’t gods, but just a mightier people than we are?”
“They came to visit us for a time, and now they have gone home?”
“That is what I say.”
“Then they might return. And how welcome would they feel if they saw that we had abandoned their feast and their masquerade?”
“But how can we who are now so reviled convince anyone else?”
“By starting with those who don’t revile us, and who are not themselves reviled.”
The mask-makers spoke into the night, a still night of plans, fraught with fears and doubts.
Each of them went to one other person whom they trusted, a person whom others would heed. A farmer. A fisher. A hunter.
These trusted three gathered a small crowd with a half-truth, that they sought the return of the feast for the nine little gods. Many would welcome the return of the masquerade feast, even in the absence of the gods. But without the support of the islands’ leaders, the feast could not be. So, what were they to do?
The fisher, the farmer, and the hunter said their words, and then they stepped down to make way for the three mask-makers. They had crafted three masks and a plan. They presented first, the masks.
From the crowd, there came much hissing and sneering. But there came forth also a few who compelled the others to listen. A leader, who quieted the crowd with a rousing speech in favor of the masquerade feast, made all the more powerful by the speaker’s sincerity. A crafter who professed to the crowd that the new masks were more magnificent than any before crafted by mortal hands. If nothing else, that was worthy of noting and studying. A thinker who had no statements, but many questions, all of which were also in the minds of many in the crowd, and whose speaking aloud brought some measure of satisfaction.
In the end, all but those three left, shaking their heads with sorrow.
Seeing that the hunter, fisher, and farmer were joined by the leader, crafter, and thinker, the mask-makers presented their plan.
“We had planned to present the masks to as many as would come to the next feast and masquerade,” one of the mask-makers said. “To show them that the masks were so glorious and their magic so enduring that the gods would be able to enjoy the whole feast, the whole night, without being known. Thus could we restore hope to the people, and show the gods that we are thriving, and that they are welcome, always welcome back to their first earthly home.”
“It is a noble thought,” said the leader. “If only the gods had not yet departed, the plan would surely work. I hope it still does.”
“But perhaps we can convince the people that the gods have returned,” the mask-maker said. “Now that we are nine, we can make six more masks. We can pretend to be the gods—only for a few moments—to deliver a final message.”
The thinker would help them to craft that message, and the leader would deliver it.
It would be all the things that the human people had said they would have wished to hear from the gods. Words of encouragement, final bits of wisdom, a farewell, and a vague pronouncement that they may or may not return, for their sights were long, but not long enough to see their whole journeys.
“I do not like the sound of that plan,” the farmer said. “We would be deceiving our own people. Who are we to say that we are doing it for their own good?”
“Then we tell them the truth,” said the hunter, “that the gods are not coming, and may never come back again. But that we will hold their feast anyway, and we will march in parade, as a remembrance of them and their teachings. Many will come. Not all, but many.”
As it turned out, many did come, more than expected.
(It was a party after all.)
The feast and masquerade was not as extravagant, since payment did not come from all the islands’ funds, but from donations gathered by the mask-makers’ allies, and granted by those who wanted to continue the tradition. Still, it was a wonderful night.
And a strange thing happened.
Nine people appeared at the height of the festivities, wearing masks of such magnificence that these nine were jokingly asked if they were the gods returned.
But the nine told the truth, “I am no god, just a human like you.”
And yet, rumors spread that the gods had indeed returned, masked and pretending to be ordinary human beings. And they had laughed and caroused and told stories with everyone else. And they had even stayed to help clean up some of the mess. Then before dawn, they had walked off into the dark. The direction of their steps was known, but none followed, out of respect.
The following year, even more people returned to the feast of the nine little gods in masquerade. More money was given and so the food was tastier, the drink rarer, the games more clever, and the gifts and prizes grander. And the masks were more magnificent. The three mask-makers were asked to do the work of making them, and teaching others how to make them. This they did.
Again, it was said there were some masks, nine in number that far outshone the others. And that suggested—though it could not be proven—that the gods walked among them again.
It was slow in spreading, the knowledge that the gods were truly gone. That the nine magnificent masks were worn by ordinary folk, different folk each year, and that was how they learned that the truth was truly the truth. And yet, each year there arose more and more stories of encounters with the gods.
I still find myself wondering where those gods went off to. Any story that claims to know is a false one. They never said…
You’re still listening?
Ha! Then I must commend your patience.
Now that I’ve told it, I see that my tale had nothing special in it.
Did you know that the young folks have started telling tales of how the nine humans became a new pantheon? Tales that say they were “adopted” by the nine little gods before they left, for the nine little gods were meant to pass on their powers and talents either in body or in teachings, or both.
That part of the tale is true.
I’ve inherited some of those teachings. And I’ve borne no children, but I have taught many. To my apprentices, the tale I just told comes at the end of their teaching. Knowing the truth, they can split from me and their fellow apprentices and advance upon their own journey.
To you, the tale I’ve told is an amusement, as it should be. You are not my apprentice. Your talents, tales, and triumphs, as well as your failures and sorrows, lie elsewhere.
What claim would you believe? That I am descended from one of the mask-makers? Ah, but you see that I am not. Perhaps I am one of the mask-makers? Living far past what is now the natural age for the human people, but still showing that age, eh?
Oh, but why do I toy with you? I should tell you the truth. A truth you already know, despite the magnificence of my mask.
I am no god, just a human, like you.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel