The Mask arrived in our home when I was still a boy. Father returned from safari with it. He claimed a shaman gave it to him, but I had grown old enough to learn that most of Father’s artifacts were nothing more than trinkets bought at the local market. While he was a great man, he had the unfortunate gullibility that is the curse of decent men and was easily deceived.
He once returned from the Orient with a jade amulet that allegedly possessed the soul of an ancient Edo prince who was slain by a Ronin out for revenge for his fallen master. We later learned upon its appraisal, it was neither Jade nor from the Orient, and was in fact, manufactured somewhere in Russia. While the object had lost its luster, the story lived on in my memory, but there was a slightly bitter taste in my mouth as if the truth had somehow been warped.
Later, he returned from a trip to the Holy Land. Again, he brought back spoils for my brother and I. For weeks, my brother and I had argued over what Father would bring home. After all, he was adventuring in the land of Kings, the place where all mystics sought answers. Would it be something from the Kabbalah? Or Solomon, perhaps? Or maybe even he would discover and something more divine, christened by the Lord himself. This time he pulled a piece of stone the size of a book from his satchel.
When he laid this etched stone on the table, my brother and I shared glances, confused by what lay before us. He explained, in the simplest terms, he possibly could, that the piece of stone was a priceless artifact thought to be lost to time. To me, it looked like a rock eroded by the desert. Yet Father pointed to the etchings on the flat surface and even translated a few of the phrases. His years as a scholar had taught him many things, and he had passed the love of languages on to me. So when he began to carve his way through the meaning of the arcane symbols, my mind reeled with possibilities.
For weeks, my imagination ran wild. While Father translated the tablet, I came up with my own meanings. Copying the graphics from the original, I would discover hidden meanings coded in the text. I had learned that all the great adventurers had mastered the Romantic languages and extended themselves to dead tongues. While my English was good, my Spanish was abysmal, and my French was worse. Therefore, I could only pretend to discover the meaning in my Father’s study, while he turned page after page looking for real answers.
When the tablet made its way to the attic, I was devastated. While I had discovered numerous spells and lost secrets, my Father’s findings were far less impressive. After months of research, I thought he had given up. It was worse. The only thing he had discovered was that he had, yet again, been swindled. This time the forgery was far more impressive, the work of a master. The tablet had even been planted in the dig site he was excavating, a ploy his colleagues would later discover that was meant to derail their entire expedition. Who had plagued them and while still remains a mystery, but the fact remains months had been wasted on a hoax. And as my Father shunned the stone to the attic, I too put away papers on the subject.
This is not to say that everything he brought home was not legitimate. He had been given gifts and traded with his fellow archaeologists. For Christmas one year, he had been given a quill pen that once belonged to the statesmen Benjamin Franklin. Another time he was gifted by the head of his department a set of boxed bones, an ancient divination set from deep in the Hindu Kush. My favorite of his trinkets was an ornate knife that once belonged to the Prince of Bokabal. The case was made of pure ivory and painted with a scene from the journeys of Marco Polo. Yet, as beautiful as the sheath was the steel was far more luxurious, as it was a family heirloom passed down through the royal bloodline since their ascension.
How would such a valuable item end up on my Father’s possession, you may ask? Name the Prince of Bokabal or even where the province is. The kingdom had fallen on hard times during the industrial revolution, and to salvage as much money as they possibly could the royal family was forced to liquidate.
Still, my Father never lost the curiosity that drove his passion. He would leave puzzles every day for my brother and me to solve. It would take us hours in the study to uncover the secret. Pulling book after book, page after page, to decode the riddles. While there would always be a prize at the end of the tunnel, the game was the reward. In fact, Father seemed to take double interest in the games after the failure of the tablet. The mysteries became more complex, often resulting in neither I or my brother being able to solve the codes.
It would be years before my Father returned to the field. He felt a fool. He had staked his reputation on the finding. While he had written numerous books on the subject of antiquity, he had yet to make any significant findings.
For most men, that would be enough, but there was too much Viking blood in my Father. He craved adventure. He needed success. Money was never the issue. Fame was a byproduct. What my Father truly desired was accolades. Since his days on the Varsity had long left him and all that remained was his studies, he lusted from one more great voyage.
It finally came in the form of a trip to the Americas. Several of the Universities leading scholars had grown ill in the climate. While the New World was not my Father’s forte, they needed experienced hands. Sometimes bodies are all people really need.
And so, my Father again left us; however, at this time, my brother and I were well into our adulthood, or what we considered adulthood. To the rest of the world, we were nothing but troublesome youths, but to Eli and I, we were men. So, the days of magic talisman and buried treasure were behind us, replaced by the search for good beer and fast women. Both were never in short supply.
Mother received letters regularly from Father, although the distance between them grew and grew until it seemed as if they had withered out. Eli and I were sure Father was fine, a man in his prime, but Mother became lonely.
When the next letter arrived, it was not from Father but from the University. Apparently, Father had grown ill, falling to the same disease that afflicted his peers, and would be returning home. We were both joyed and horrified of the discovery. It was another week before he arrived, but the man that came back could hardly claim to be my Father.
When my Father left for the Americas, he was a stout man above six feet with broad shoulders, a trait he had passed along to Eli but not to me. When he returned, he was a skeleton of a man and gave off the appearance as if he had shrunk.
We were not allowed to see him. For one, the doctors forbid us fearing we would contract the illness, and two because he forbade anyone other than Mother to see him. We caught a glimpse of him; however, as one night in a fit of fever, he wandered the halls of the house. At first, I thought a demon was upon us, making its way to our door. The door nob rattled, waking Eli and myself, but as the door flung open, we saw the nurses whisk Father away. His sunken eyes burned into my head.
This tragic event would repeat itself again and again. Father seemingly sleepwalking through the house, always stumbling towards out room, but never making it in. When we would try and go to him during the day, the doctors would forbid us from entering.
That is, until one night, I felt a hand grasp at my chest. I started with fright but was might by another hand clasping over my mouth. With force, I was thrown back to my pillow and met with the hollow eyes of my Father. His beard was greying, and the color had flushed from his skin. Though his youth had always been far behind him, it was nonexistent now as he appeared to be courting death.
The most upsetting thing about his appearance, however, was the dried blood on his hair and neckline. It looked as if someone had drilled small holes into his skull and left the tissue to heal itself.
He released my chest and raised a finger to his lips. In a breathy, almost imperceptible voice, he whispered to me, “There... isn’t. Much. Time…”
It sounded like each word cost him his soul, and every breath broke a bone.
“Father, come on, let’ s--”
A fire rose inside of him, and for a moment, I saw him like he once was.
From the shadows, he pulled something hollow and placed it on my bed.
“Do...not let them…”
But the words were too much. His body sprung into convulsions as he coughed his lungs out. Immediately, nurses raced into the room with flashlights. Instinctively, I hid whatever Father gave me in my sheets and jumped to my feet to help the men. Instead, I was held back as they carted my Father off into the house. I tried to speak, but his primary doctor entered the room.
“We’ll need to give you a shot.”
“To protect you.”
“From what? From my Father?”
“Yes. From what is killing him.”
The words hit my flat. I was not expecting such honesty. We all had feared it, but no one had spoken it aloud as if to speak, it was to breathe life into the idea.
“He’s,” I had to gather the courage to say the word, “dying?”
But I was not awarded an answer. Instead, the doctor grabbed my arm, and forcefully shot a needle into a vein. In minutes, the world softened, and I collapsed into the bed.
When I awoke, it was well into the day. I was dazed from the drug, but once my brain snapped back on, I reached for what my Father had given me. It was gone.
“What the hell is this?” came my brother’s voice.
Across the room, he sat at my desk and was holding a stone mask. I tried to speak, but it felt like my mouth was full of cotton.
“Going to be difficult to speak for a while, there’s some water by the bed.”
I gulped down the glass, and my brother continued.
“I found this under your sheets. There was a note tucked inside.”
“From--” the word was mumbled and barely audible, “--father?”
“Is that a statement or a question?” he paused. My brother always had a flair for the dramatic and the innate smugness that plagues younger siblings.
“Doesn’t matter. The note is not from Father, of that I am certain. I can’t read it, but it’s not his handwriting. But, given that your first question was about dad, I am going to assume he gave this to you last night.”
“He did,” I chewed on the words, “scared the crap out of me. Shoved that into my hands before they took him away.”
“How bad was he?”
I couldn’t answer, but the silence was enough.
“Well, now that you’re up, see if you can do anything with this,” he handed me the note, “and I’ll keep the doctors at bay until you dress.”
He walked out of the room. As intriguing as the episode was, Eli had lost interest in Father’s games a long time ago. But even he had to admit this was odd, right?
I looked down at the brown paper, the wax sealed with the signet ring of the University dangling from the bottom. My brother was right. The writing was strange, to say the least. At first glance, it looked to be English. Still, upon further examination, the script possessed symbols from Latin, Greek, and even are hieroglyphic or two.
It was utter nonsense. My Father, God bless him, had gone mad. It was clear to me now. Whatever his ailment was, it had taken his mind, the only thing he had left. His ranting last night was the ravings of a man who belonged in a sanitarium. Still, my Mother’s pride would not allow our family to be touched by that plague.
I looked at the Mask, a devilishly carnal creation. The features were sharp, designed to invoke unease in the onlooker. He was a tragically comic figure, with his eyes slumped in the sign of pit under his heavy brows, a stark contrast to the toothy smile.
Yet despite its openings at the eyes and mouth, the Mask could not possibly be for wearing; it was too heavy. Or was this simply the mind of a privileged youth unable to comprehend the strength of the savage?
I turned my attention back to the letter. The seal appeared to be from my Father’s ring, but the writing was nothing like his hand. A few strokes of the Greek and Latin, perhaps, looked like the flourishes of my Father, as a whole, the puzzle was anything but.
A soft knock came at my door. It surprised me given I thought Eli was watching, but soon the sweet voice of my Mother followed the rapping.
She entered the room only slightly, dressed for the day, and her hair pulled up tightly. Her face was grave and apologetic.
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine. A little woozy from the shot.”
“I’m sorry. I told the doctor he had no right, but he warned me that if we did not immunize you immediately, we risked your health.”
“I understand,” I lied.
“I’m sorry,” she paused, “you had to see your Father like that…”
“He’s sick. He’ll get better.”
She didn’t answer.
“Yes, yes. He will. We just don’t need both of you bedridden.”
We shared a polite smile, my Mother’s eyes unable to hold my gaze.
I realized the Mask was still out. For some reason, without hesitation, I lied to my Mother.
“Something I’ve been playing with,” she turned on me quickly, “for school.”
The answer did not satisfy her.
“For Theatre. Professor Abbott is doing a module on Commedia masks.”
“This,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “is not Commedia.”
“Right. It’s pre-Italian. We’re meant to research the evolution of the masks, a tribal connection to the use of masks in civilization.”
Again, her face showed surprise, whether it was from the story I’d concocted or the audacity of the lie I could not tell.
“That’s a profound module for a theatre professor. I thought you’d be cross-dressing or researching dead writers.”
“We do that too.”
Finally, the tension broke with a laugh.
“Well, we saved breakfast for you if you’d like, or it’s already time for lunch. Whichever you prefer. Will you join us, or would you like Eli to bring it to you?”
“I’ll come down.”
“Good. See you shortly.”
The door closed softly. I looked at the Mask, already it had caused me to lie to my Mother. My Father’s eyes came to my mind, the fear and the horror trapped inside of them. What had he brought home this time?
I met everyone for lunch, everyone except for Eli. He wasn’t present; however, this was not unusual as he regularly skipped meals, opting for a liquid lunch.
I thumbed the letter in my pocket. For some reason, I had brought it with me. The Mask had been tucked away safely in my room, just in case there was any validity to Father’s request. I sincerely doubted it, but I felt it would be better to humor the old man until I knew more.
My head was still fuzzy from the shot the night before, and the voices at lunch were distant and empty. Occasionally Mother would direct a question to me, and I would answer with the satisfactory answer allotted to young men my age.
The food made me sick. I couldn’t eat. So, after sipping on some tea and smiling at the doctors and nurses who joined us, I excused myself. Everyone looked at me suspiciously, but there was nothing to be done about it.
As I made my way back to my room, the hallway became hazy, and my balance drifted. I steadied myself on the wall, and I heard a voice come up behind me.
It was the doctor from the night before. He put his shoulder under me to steady my walk. My stomach was filled with anger from the night previously. Helpful or not, I was not a fan of his at the moment. I didn’t like being injected with things I had no control over.
A smile masked my contempt as I pushed off of him, claiming a brief rush of blood to the head and nothing more to be the culprit. By the time I reached my door, he was still watching me.
I wanted to collapse on my bed but found Eli occupying the space. He had discovered the Mask and destroyed my room in the process.
“What do you think this is this time?” He turned to look at me, “Jesus, you look like hell!”
“Damn drugs. Whatever that doctor gave me packs a punch.”
“No. I’m alright. What the hell are you doing in my room?”
“Technically, it used to be our room.”
“Not for more than a year. I thought you wanted your own room?”
“I did, but it seemed like a good time to play the card.”
“So, what are you doing here?”
“Had any luck with this thing?” Eli playfully spun the Mask on his finger, “where’s the card?”
“No and no.”
“No? To the card?”
“I’ve got the card, and, no, I haven’t had any luck.”
“Well, we know one thing…” he paused and shot his eyes over to me, “whatever it is, dad sure got more than he bargained for this time.”
I know he was trying to make light of the situation, and it was always my brother’s tactic to subvert serious situations with jokes, but this wasn’t funny. I was beginning to feel light-headed again.
“Who knows,” started Eli, “maybe this time he actually found something. Probably not, but maybe. Where was he?”
Eli dramatically raised the Mask in the air, his arms resembling an overdramatic actor starring in Hamlet. The light from the window backlit him as if he was on a stage; however, it hurt my eyes to see something so bright. I squinted and rubbed my fingers into my eyes, pretending that somewhere, sometime that actually worked.
“Not sure,” I said, “somewhere in South America…”
When I looked up, Eli had placed the Mask onto his face. A few muffled words filled the air, but I couldn’t make them out. All I could tell was a laugh came at the end of it. I smiled, appeasing my brother so that hopefully he would leave more quickly.
There was a loud crack that drove my eyes back up to Eli. I thought he had broken the stone relic, but when I looked in front of me, he was grasping at his face. Four pincers had sprouted from the sides of the Mask and dug underneath his jaw and hairline. Blood streamed down the sides of the Mask, and Eli screamed.
My mind wanted to believe this was a joke, but there was no time to entertain the illusion. As I looked upon Eli, it was as if the Mask became transparent. I could see my brother’s face, except it was no longer just his face. The thick browline and sharp cheekbones of the Mask layered into Eli’s gentle features, and the widening grin transplanted into Eli’s smile. I reached for my brother, and the eyes of something else shot up at me.
He raced towards the door, throwing a shoulder into me. Before he thrust himself into the hallway, my head banged against my desk, and before all went black, I heard the screams of my brother tinged with the laugh of something not of this earth.
Before I regained consciousness, I could feel the pain in my head. A foul stench filled my nostrils, and a nauseous pulse ran into my stomach. I opened my eyes to the same doctor as the night before hovering over me. This time, he was waking me up instead of putting me down.
“There he is,” said the doctor, “easy does it. You’ve had quite the adventure, haven’t you?”
“Where’s Eli?” It hurt to speak, the movement of my jaw repulsed my head. I tried to reach back to the source of the pain but was restrained by the doctor.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You hit your head pretty well. You’re not going to need stitches, but I wouldn’t risk rubbing it.”
He placed my hand back on the bed and lowered me gently down onto a pillow. Even the soft touch of the fabric alarmed my system and sent a rush of memories through my brain.
Through gritted teeth, I repeated, “Where’s my brother?”
“Your brother? No one’s seen him for a while. Why?”
The image of his face molding into the Mask flashed before my eyes, and the sight almost hurt more than my head.
“Nothing,” I said with the typical flare of youth.
“Alright, listen. You’ve got a concussion, which means you can’t go to sleep--”
“No buts, you’ve got to stay awake. We can’t risk any further damage. I’ll give you something to help with the pain, but you’ve got to stay up for the next few hours. Got it?”
I hated this man. Before, he annoyed me by injecting me with drugs without my permission. Now, my eyes were heavy, and my world was a throbbing pain isolated in the center of my skull, and he was telling me I couldn’t sleep.
“Got it,” I said, and he injected me with some unknown agent for the second time.
“A nurse will be right outside the door. She’ll check in on you every few minutes in case you doze off. Don’t let her break your heart too.”
“What about--can I--can I see my dad?”
There was a heavy pause from the doctor and then, “I’m afraid not. At least, not for now. But you can see him soon.”
He flashed a fake smile, the kind all doctors give you like an uncle you hardly know feigning familial love, and then he walked out, leaving the door ajar. I could see the white hosed feet of the nurse. She poked her head around and waved. I had to admit, she was cute. Even in my current state, I couldn’t miss that.
When she resumed her post, the brief light of joy was gone. Now, there was only the pain in my head, the feeling in my gut, and the drive that consumed the rest of my being. Something happened to my brother right before my eyes. The Mask, my Father, had given me in his sickened state had consumed Eli’s face.
Yet, could I trust my eyes? Had any of it really happened? Perhaps, I had merely fallen and hallucinated the whole event, or worse, maybe Eli had pulled a prank on me. The latter infuriated me. It wouldn’t be the first time, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that what I had seen was a joke. It wasn’t that Eli would not steep to such a level, it was the sound of the screams as he left my room and the eyes that glared at me that did not belong to him. What was going on?
It was then I remembered I only had one piece of evidence left from my Father. I looked to make sure the nurse was not checking in on me and then reached into my pocket.
Slowly, I lifted the letter from my pants and pulled it up to my head. The wax seal bearing the signet from my Father’s University floated off the page, and I unfolded it. Just in case the nurse got curious, I reached for the book on my bedside table, a collection of adventure stories I had been roaming through for a few months. I opened the book to the last page I had read and pushed the open letter inside. Just as I tucked away from the page, I saw the nurse’s leg love outside the door frame. My eyes darted up, and I held my breath.
Once I realized she was simply repositioning herself, I let out an exhale and resumed my task. My initial assessment of the letter had been wrong.
The message was in code, one that my Father and I used regularly. He tipped his hand with a simple symbol, a reference to the tablet he had wasted so many years of his life decoding. In the top right-hand corner of the parchment was a solar cross.
When he had thought the artifact was genuine, he believed they had stumbled upon something from King Solomon. It was their belief that Solomon was yet another of those divine monarchs who attached themselves, just like their Egyptian and Sumerian counterparts, to the Sun. To them, Sol-Om-on was code for, Sun-Sun-Sun, Sol being the Latin word for sun, Om Hindi Sanskrit for Sun, and On Egyptian. Thus, they had taken to using the Solar Cross as a shorthand for their works. But what was it doing here?
Father often used the solar cross as a key to alert me that something was important and not to be overlooked. And then I saw it. Everything fell into place. It was as if the words lept of the page and formed the hidden message. To the uninitiated, the page was a garbled mess of languages and symbols, but to Eli and I, the page was as readable as a penny dreadful.
The life of a scholar is a lonely and busy one with hours spent in the study. To entertain us as boys, Father would create puzzles and codex’s to solve often containing maps that lead to greater adventures.
It was a fantastic ruse looking back on it. What better way to maintain silence in the house than giving your two boys unsolvable riddles?
At first, they were simple and cliche. He used pig Latin and simple substitution to hide secret locations of cookies; however, as we learned to crack his codes, he adapted. The more time he needed to work alone, the harder he made the game.
Eventually, it evolved into a complex system and was, perhaps, my Father’s greatest success; however, as Eli and I reached adolescence, the game lost its luster as sports and girls took their place.
Now, staring back at me was a combination of the letters and symbols we had once solved, and the message read:
“Beware the Devil in the Mask.”
I threw the paper down. If only I had looked at this sooner. Perhaps, Eli would be alright.
I grabbed the paper again, praying for some other message, but could see none. Often, Father would layer message upon message, hiding multiple codes in one. But Father was not well anymore, and the fact he could muster this was an accomplishment.
At least, I thought, I knew what I was facing. My mind hardly believed it and tried to rationalize what I had seen. Yet, there was no justification for the wicked sight, and my fear grew.
Eli had been consumed by some demon, trapped away in the Mask brought back to this house by my Father. He had finally succeeded in discovering something of note, and it had cost him his sanity, and perhaps his youngest son.
But why would he give me the Mask and this note? Why didn’t he destroy the thing if he knew the others were after it? Did he mean the doctor? There had to be more.
I looked again. What did my Father want me to know? To see? I read the code again and again. I changed the letters to numbers, the symbols to stories, but could find nothing to ease my soul. That is until I stopped looking.
My eyes relaxed, and my heart sank. Then, just as it happened before, the words melted away and became something else.
A smile crept to my face. He truly was a brilliant man. In another life, perhaps, my Father could have been a bard. He had created a puzzle within a puzzle, to ward off any onlooker who was not versed in the games of my youth.
I cannot explain how. It is the sort of knowledge that only comes after years of experience. He spoke directly to me, and I knew what must be done.
Very few times in life are black and white when the path is laid out before us; however, this thing had consumed my Father and taken my brother. His message made it clear what I must do. There was no respite. There was no salvation.
I opened the door to my Father’s study, and there at the window was my brother. His back was to the door, but he knew I was there. Eli cast his eyes back, but the face that looked at me was not his.
He had transformed, more the Mask than Eli. His features were all but subservient to the barbaric cast of stone.
It was Eli’s voice, but it sounded like an impression as if the lungs produced the wind, but another instrument played the notes.
“I’ve been waiting to thank you.”
I said nothing.
“I don’t know who I should thank first, you or Father. I tried to whisper my secrets, but he was too old. His mind and body to frail to accept me…” he paused for a moment and turned his gaze to me, “however, I granted him the freedom he so desired.”
He raised his hands, which now looked more like claws, stained with blood, and smiled, “But this, this specimen is far greater than him.”
It was like looking into the face of a demon. Horror filled my body. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I merely stood and faced the being in front of me.
“There is only one question, what will you do now?”
Anger filled me, and the heat of rage flushed my face.
“I see. This doesn’t end well for you, Brother, you must know this…”
“You...are not...my brother,” I said.
“No...not anymore. But let me paint a picture for you. I’ve done this a thousand times and will do it a thousand more. Whatever you came here to do, I survive. I’ve seen this play out time and time again. You can kill me, and I will live on, but your brother dies, and you will be looked upon as a murderer.”
“What are you?”
“Does it matter?” He waited for an answer, “Let’s just say I am one of the last remaining beings of old. Man is not the first or the last being to be created. But you are a perfect vessel for this world. Angels. Demons. The Old Ones, as your brother seems to recall, we have many different names, but they all mean the same thing.”
He moved towards me, leading with the blade, confident he had instilled the fear of God in me. He put Eli’s hand on my shoulder and glanced at me the way you look at a dog.
He started to speak again, but I had heard enough.
I ran the blade through him, that ornate paperweight traded away when a kingdom fell, the blade we had played with as children, the blade that now took his life.
He let out a scream that rocked every corner of the house. As I thrust it deeper into his gut, the Mask relinquished its hold of Eli, and I saw his eyes leap forward from the abyss.
The hardened features of the Mask pushed forward from underneath Eli’s skin until it was a mask again. The stone fingers reappeared from the sides, their fingers still deep in my brother’s neck and skull. With a swift sound, they recoiled back into their base, and the stone dropped to the floor.
Eli’s pale face looked at mine. His features were gaunt as if all the life had been sucked from his being. I felt his hands grasp my shoulders, and as he braced himself.
He tried to speak, but as the words bounced around his mouth, he collapsed into my arms, the dagger still protruding from his gut.
I watched as blood trickled from his mouth, and tears fell from his eyes. There was nothing I could do but weep as death came for him.
As I pulled Eli into me, I must have screamed, for a slew of nurses and servants rushed into the room, their faces filled with horror.
The last thing I remember before that bastard put me under again was being torn away from the lifeless corpse that used to be my brother, and the Mask smiling at me as I clawed at the floor.
This confession will not exonerate me. I killed my brother, of that I do not deny. No matter how I try to spin it in my head, it was my knife that ended his life. Yet, I contest I had no choice, that parasite would have done far worse given its new host.
If my Father ever awakes, perhaps he can exonerate me, but I have been given no news of his health. My doctor assures me the Mask has been locked away, although every day, he attempts to convince me of the delusions that infect my mind. He has told me none of this is my fault, that the visions that have possessed me are the projections of a mind filled with the fantasies of a mad man, whether he means myself or my Father I do not know.
For now, my family's connections have locked me into a sanitorium. My mother informed me the authorities ruled it an accidental death, that Eli’s thirst for drink leads to a freak accident, and that my name had been left out of it.
And here I will rot with nothing but my thoughts and drugs coursing through my body. Those of you that have read this know that every word is true and that I am not a murderer, nor am I mad. Although, by the time you read this, I will surely have lost the last few remaining markings of sanity. Please, destroy the Mask. Find it, destroy it. Please. Please. Please.
If someone is currently trying to sell you some complicated method of dieting that is guaranteed to deliver results and cost a ton of money or special pills and powders, don't buy it. Likewise, if some school or God forbid agency is selling you an overcomplicated method to being a "great" actor, or promises you fame in fortune, don't buy it.
First of all, acting is simple. Despite actors wishing to be shooting stars, the fact of the matter is that we are all people. In fact, it is when actors forget they are people first and actors second that we, as the audience, feel a distaste for their performances.
I love pragmatic approaches to most things. What is the action I need to follow? What are the habits I need to build? How do I do the job in its fundamental way? This can be a tricky thing in any art form because artists like to believe in the cosmic forces that inspire them, and while there is a place for the divine muse, that place is not in the beginning stages.
So what are the practical lessons someone needs to be a good actor? If I was to break it down into three undeniable actions, it would be: observe, listen, and give. While this may sound like the three verbs of a self-help blog, hear me out.
Observation is the first practical secret of acting. In fact, it's the secret of all artistry. When you are a child, and what is art but attempting to live life through the eyes of a child, you learn from observing the world around you. Sure, our parents try to teach up language and games, but we learn from mimicry.
Perhaps that is where all drama and acting comes from, our innate ability to mimic; however, that is another article for another day.
In his book "The Inner Game of Tennis," Timothy Gallwey writes that the secret to teaching tennis is not to teach it at all. The secret is to let the student learn from observation. Gallwey learned through years of practice that his students performed better if they watched better players serve rather than him attempting to teach them technique. He would tweak and adjust, but ultimately all of his students performed better when he let their natural learning method take precedence; that is when he allowed them to mimic.
Think of the ease of which a child can imitate a relative or pick up on the habits of a teacher and reproduce them. If you wish to be an artist, you must look at the world through the eyes of an artist. We must learn to see the beauty of the world and take note of what we find beauty in. What attracts you? What garners your interest? What inspires you? Sparks your curiosity? Fills you with awe? That is where your heart lies, and if it is, in fact, storytelling, then move on to number two.
*Note: There is no shame if acting, drama, or comedy are not your thing. There are many more lucrative forms of art and entertainment. Think of all the podcasts created in the last decade or all the great comics and novels written. There is no "highest" form, and if anyone attempts to tell you otherwise, shoot them, metaphorically speaking, of course. Remember, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Second, and this may seem counterintuitive, given the nature of the job, the actor must listen. Stephen Covey, the guy every manager quoted to their subordinates back in the 90s, wrote several of his famous habits centered around the subject of active listening. "Seek first to understand then to be understood," and also, "to be interesting, be interested." He was an advocate for active listening long before the new wave of mindfulness took hold. His point is sound, however, which is why it stuck around.
We are most interested in people who are interested in us. Everyone loves talking about themselves, try it the next time you are at a party. Rather than rolling on about your life, keep prodding the other person with questions about their life and watch as they light up like Jubilee.
Actors are guilty of this trap. Ask them about their method and be ready for a four hour conversation. We've all been on the receiving end of someone's diatribe, unable to get a word in and merely a sounding board for their monologue. While you would think this would serve the actor, it doesn't. Audiences are made up of people, no brainer, and people don't want to see narcissists parading around on stage.
What makes for riveting work is when the players on stage or on camera are fully engaged in the scene. In order to be fully engaged, we must be actively listening to our scene partner. If all we are doing is thinking of our next line, we cannot take in the other character's lines and their impact on us, let alone respond naturally to the comments. If you are so involved with your internal monologue that you are not listening to the insults or praise being thrown your way by the other characters, you're ahead floating around waiting to speak. The job is not to wait for your turn to talk, the task is to fill those moments in between with life, and the easiest way to do that is to listen.
Finally, the last tip is to give. This can be as simple as saying your lines as written, or it can be as glamorous as an improvised response, but the point is to give. If you are present, observing, and listening, then you are already giving your full attention to your scene partner, who is more than I can say for most actors. Ask yourself, what does the other person need? What do they want? How can I set them up to succeed?
In improv, the golden rule is to make your partner look good. If you are doing that, then the scene will work. Insult humor is so easy, it's the lowest of low hanging fruit. Plus, no one wins. Sure, when you are with your friends, it's fun to exchange barbs, but in life, insults are a pissing contest. It is our hierarchical desire to impose our will on other people and makes ourselves feel superior. This is not the road to good acting.
Indeed, in the game of drama, these sorts of tactics are used in the script; however, we, like actors, must separate ourselves from the character. At all times, an actor is a professional. He doesn't need to send dead fish to his castmates to make them think his character is crazy, that's not talent that's an asshole.
Giving actors take in all the information they have: the script, their life, the scene, the situation, the stress, the other actor, their character, everything. Then, they ask a simple question, "What does this scene need?" If you are focused on giving the scene what it needs, whether that is by finding your action or by using what you've learned from listening to the other actor, then you will always be alright.
Lastly, all of this can be taken out with the trash at any given moment. If your director needs you to go over and pick up a box of pizza, then you go over and pick up a box of pizza. No need to infuse anything more into the scene than that. Remember, acting is a collaborative effort. Always check your method at the door, even if that method is pragmatic. I want to work with people, not with robots following orders given to them by professors, teachers, or, worst of all, bloggers.
Acting is fun. It is a game. Like any game, the goal is to entertain ourselves and find the joy of life. Never forget that lesson when you are working. Don't take yourself too seriously. All it takes to poison the well while working is one jerk who believes they're doing something other than playing make-believe.
Mostly because no one cares, but that is beside the point. If you, however, falsely believe that the person sitting across from you wishes to hear your grievances, and you are not paying them $200/hr, then I regret to inform you that you are mistaken.
As kids, we learn to feign interest. As adults, we carry this lesson into our professional lives. Some people master the skill and become managers. Others, like myself, grow weary of listening to a group of actors bitch and moan about the process, the plot, or, more likely, the lines.
Still, the habit is a diabolical one. There is, perhaps, nothing more detrimental to one's health as complaining. At first, it starts as venting. Someone cuts us off on the highway, or a co-worker sends us an ill-toned email.
Then, it evolves into a series of unfortunate events that make up a tragedy. We cast ourselves in the role of Hamlet and play the victim. Suddenly, our broken shoelace becomes a slight from Richard of Gloucester and the insufferable Debra one of Macbeth’s witches.
Slowly, your dictates become diatribes, and most of your day is consumed with either fuming and feasting on frustration or spewing the noxious gas onto someone who will listen.
There is one unfortunate exception to the rule.
Complaining functions like a magnet. Do it at work, and you will be amazed at how many people, like cockroaches, descend to share the shit sandwich.
Like the aforementioned group Of actors, people will do anything to avoid work, and there is no better American pastime than complaining. Sit back and marvel at the wit of the clap back and the comedy of errors laid out for you about the boss. Notice how, in lurid detail, people can recall slight after slight, shortcoming after shortcoming, for days upon end. Yet, what goal has been accomplished?
Think again about how many countless internet rants there have been deconstructing the faults of Star Wars. How many endless tirades are the on Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube about “How It Should Have Ended” and “Everything Wrong With” about the galaxy far far away. And yet, how many of those people have written a screenplay, let alone build a world or produce a film?
See, complaining functions to serve our ego. We believe we are superior to most people; it’s not Machiavellian it’s mundane.
When we engage in swapping war stories and battle in the game of one-upmanship, we throw our hat into the ring of pity. How many hours have you worked? How big is your student debt? What driver cuts you off in the rain this morning?
By reliving the fantasy or sharing the experience, we long for validation. The closest thing that emulates this practice is masturbation. We look for the perfect idea to rail against, searching page after page, thought after thought, until we settle for some person and unload.
We cast ourselves in the tragedy of life, an Elizabethan player, fretting upon the stage, and, as the Bard notes, we are full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Likewise, the medium of our time, social media, has created a haven for trolls and whiners alike, a sea of “I normally don’t do this,” and, “you know who you are.”
What Facebook and its myriad of Hydra-heads tapped into was man’s need for validation. “I exist,” is what every page secretly says. Yet, it also amplifies the signal of our worst impulses and feeds off of our anger and lust for vitriol.
Most men are not Tolstoy. We don’t write of texts full of meaning, driven by annals well-plotted, character-driven drama. Most of us, this author included (yes, I see the irony of this article as being a complaint about complaining), write dribble, hence why ever insta-model only quotes the same six authors next to a photo or the well-shaped ass.
And so, we turn to what we know, the thorn in our side.
It may feel as though you are working through your stand-up routine, that you are a wit churning out zinger after zinger, but you are not. People love to salivate over gossip and ridicule those they despise. But take a step back for a moment and see that the knife you hold cuts both ways.
The great sages of the past learned this counsel that to hurt another is to hurt ones-self. We may exact our revenge, but it always comes at a cost.
So the next time you wish to decompress by lambasting someone or screaming at the heavens that life is unjust, ask yourself, “Is this useful?” We have all this pent up energy, all this sound, and fury, building to a crescendo, and we waste it on cheap shots at imaginary figures. Instead, how do we funnel that rage, how do we direct that raging wind towards something, anything, more creative?
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.