by C. A. Shoultz
Simon slumped back in his seat and sighed to hear the music play annoyingly around his head. Pam was listening again, that stupid radio within her cubicle tuned into the city’s classical station. Simon had for so long hated music—or, not hated, but had never really seen the point. He found it hard to concentrate when music played, and so Pam’s tunes were now preventing him from filling out the spreadsheets on his screen. He tried and tried to focus on the numbers of the company, but now the music swelled, the violins abloom in joyous sweet refrain. He sighed again. He might just . . . and he did. He saved his work and closed the program, then pulled up the timesheet program and clocked out. His supervisor had informed him he could leave early each day this week, and he decided he would take the chance right now. Especially tonight, he really could make use of extra time. He stood and left his cubicle and hurried down the row off to the exit.
“Hey, Simon!” cried Sarai, smiling at him from her cubicle.
“Oh, hey,” he said.
“So you never gave me an answer. Did you want to go to that concert this weekend or not?”
Simon made a gentle face. “I’m . . . not sure. Besides, isn’t it outside?”
“It’s supposed to rain this weekend.”
“But it might not. It’s only a fifty percent chance.” She glanced upon him plaintively. “Come on, Simon. Please?”
He saw her face, the wanting and the joy. He wanted to say no. Instead he said, “I’ll let you know.” And he continued on out of the door and to the elevators.
The train ride home was spent in quiet contemplation. He thought, a bit, of Pam and her loud music. He dwelt a while on Sarai and her happiness and all her eager wishes that they spend more time together. Mostly, though, he thought of what awaited him tonight. He remembered when his friend Jacob had passed the card along to him, telling him he’d “like it,” whatever that might mean. There were so few details that his imagination, usually asleep, was working overdrive to speculate on just what all of it could mean.
At last he reached his studio apartment, flicked the light on, cast aside his coat. There was a little table in the entrance, and there he’d placed the card. He picked it up now and he glanced it over carefully. It was pitch black. The writing on it, in a script both clear and flowing, was soft gold. “You are invited,” it said, and did not say to what. There was just an address, and at the very bottom it said, “Formal attire requested.” Simon stared at that one last of all. When was the last time he’d even worn a necktie going out, much less formal wear?
Indeed, that was what convinced him, in the end. He pulled his dinner jacket from the closet and the rest of his ensemble followed shortly after. Knotting up his satin bowtie, he reflected that the last time he had put on a tuxedo had been when he’d been with her. A wrinkle crossed his face then, but just for a moment, barely more. Then he clipped his cummerbund in place and pulled the jacket on, and grabbed his wallet and his keys and headed out the door.
The sky was like a velvet. The streetlamps swelled with gentle golden radiance, casting lovely lighted islands through the black sea of the night. Simon thought, as he was walking from the subway entrance, that it seemed unusually quiet on the streets. It was a weeknight, true, but here in New York City every night was crowded. Tonight, though, despite the relatively early hour, there were very few people on the sidewalks. He pondered this, but ultimately set it to the side. It was a night like any other night.
At last he reached the building. It was nondescript, usual, nothing from the ordinary to distinguish it from all the others round it. Simon stood and wondered what to do. He pondered whether he was even sane. This was the right address, yet nothing seemed to indicate it. On a whim, he slowly climbed the stoop up to the door, and after one more moment’s hesitation rapped his knuckles firmly on the wooden door. The air was still, there was no noise. He grew relaxed and was–
The door came open. A man wearing a mask stood in the entrance. It was one of those ancient carnival-type masks; his face was totally obscured. Simon stood in stunned and stupid silence. The man made a large motion with his arm, inviting him inside. Simon took a deep breath, fixed his bowtie, and complied.
They traveled up a long and narrow stairway that was hugging tightly to the wall. There seemed a few times to be other hallways branching off but Simon could not see what lay within them. All that really mattered was the masked man traveling before him, making not a sound. Simon once or twice thought about asking him a question; however, something told him that the man would not have answered if he did.
In due course they arrived atop the stairs. Simon walked beyond the masked man and beheld a table covered in black velvet. A sign above it, written in gold script, said: “Choose your mask. Choose your name.” Sure enough, upon the table were a small number of masks just like his escort was wearing. They were widely and irregularly spaced apart, a sign that many others had come here before him and done what he was about to do. So there were not as many masks to pick as might have been if he had shown up earlier. Still, there were enough. He took up one. Underneath it was a notecard with a name on it. He picked the card up, and he read it. “Apollo.”
A motion from the corner of his eye—he turned to see the masked man gesturing at him, or more specifically at the mask within his hands. He fingered it a little while longer. Finally, however, he pulled back its stretchy strap and fastened it over his face. He stuffed the card into the inner pocket of his dinner jacket. The masked man moved toward a door that Simon had not seen when he’d arrived. The masked man cracked the door; faint and gentle golden light came feathering out of the narrow gap. Simon stepped forward. The masked man opened up the door much wider, and so Simon stepped inside.
The light above was golden, as though every bulb and filament were cast within the filter of a kingly crown. Simon found himself inside a massive ballroom, done out in baroque appointment, and he was amid a multitude. People milled about, men and women of every appearance and ethnicity. The men all wore tuxedos, the women all wore cocktail dresses. Every one of them was wearing a mask just like his, so all their faces were completely hidden. Simon started moving through the crowd, searching for he knew not what.
“Pardon,” said a female voice.
He turned to glance down at a lady in a mask. Her dress was dark, and lined with gleaming thread. Her hair was dark as well; what more there was of her he could not see.
“How long have you been here?” she asked up at him.
“Only just a little while,” he said.
“And what’s your name?”
Simon was about to say it, but he paused. He recalled the card beneath the mask. “Apollo,” he said.
“Oh! I’m Artemis,” said the woman. “We’re brother and sister.”
“You know your mythology,” said Simon. “The moon’s not out tonight.”
“Ha! Then I’m diminished. You know your myths too.”
“Maybe that’s why we’re here.”
“I haven’t had a chance to ask the others here yet,” said Artemis, turning to a passing waiter and removing from their tray a champagne flute. She sipped it daintily. Simon watched her. As he did he noticed that a string quartet was playing somewhere close at hand. He looked for them. He did not see them but he did see someone new come through the door, a man wearing a velvet dinner jacket. He too had a mask, of course.
“I can’t recognize anyone,” said Artemis. “I’ve been searching for some sign that someone I know is here, but no luck yet.”
Simon arched an eyebrow underneath his mask. “Stay close to me,” he said. “I’ll protect you.”
Artemis laughed, a husky sound. “Well, then, brother dear, hold me tight.” She sidled up to him and wrapped her arm around his own. Together they began to slowly wander round the floor.
“No sign of the guy I know, either,” said Simon.
“Hmm,” said Artemis. She pulled away and moved up to a woman in an emerald dress. “Pardon me, what’s your name?”
“Oh! I’m Echo,” she replied.
“Your real name.”
“Echo. Who are you?”
She paused a little, and a tiny sigh escaped her. “I’m Artemis.”
“Oh! Oh, moon! Oh goddess of the hunt! What a great honor that you would deign to speak to me, a lowly nymph.” She curtsied.
Artemis nodded abruptly. “Yes, that’s fine. But please, your real name.”
“It’s Echo, as I told you, O great maiden of the wilds. I ask your pardon that I can’t stay longer, for I must meet a friend. Farewell.” She turned and left them with a shimmer of her skirt.
“Well that was strange,” said Simon.
“Strange indeed,” said Artemis. “And she so placed herself beneath me that I surmise she—whoa whoa, hmm,” Artemis tapped on her mask. “Okay, that was really, really weird. I don’t talk like that.”
“I wonder,” Simon said. He reached back to his mask’s strap, was about to pull it off.
But before he had a chance to pull the mask off a chime echoed through the air. The string music abruptly stopped. In a mass the people started moving to the center of the room.
“Come on,” said Simon, gently taking Artemis’ hand. “Maybe we’ll learn what’s going on.” They moved with speed and press to follow up. The crowds were spaced such that an avenue was open, leading them into the very front. A high-backed chair ornately wrought in gold was sitting there; the crowd had formed an open space around it. Sitting in the chair was a small man with sandy hair, wearing a blue dinner suit a few sizes too big. He leaned back in the hair and tapped a finger up against his mask’s white chin.
“Who is that?” asked Simon.
“How should I know?” Artemis replied.
Another chime—it sounded like the ringing of a distant bell—went echoing throughout the air. The crowd grew silent. The small man raised himself to a more upright sitting pose. He leaned forward, and when he spoke his voice seemed too big for his frame. “Where are my brothers? Where are my lords Hades and Poseidon?”
“Here, O brother,” said a heavy man. He stepped out of the crowd, which parted round him, and advanced up to the chair. He took up a position on its left.
“Here, my king,” said a woman in a bright red dress. She too advanced, and stood off to the right.
“Very good,” the small man said. He steepled narrow fingers. “We are all here now, I think? All nymphs and fauns, all satyrs and centaurs of good report, all minor spirits and all lesser gods—and, of course, my family, my grand Olympians. We are all here. Let us begin! What business in the world must be attended to?”
“Shh,” said Artemis in Simon’s ear. A few faces had turned to him but most had not heard when he’d spoken. “Let’s see what’s going on.”
A man with sallow skin wearing a double-breasted dinner jacket moved up to the front. “I would have the war in the Crimea resume.”
“I should have it not,” said a woman wearing alabaster taffeta. “The soldiers on both sides are weary. They have both made good use of the ceasefire. Let them have a few months more to rest and re-equip before the war resumes.”
“I would have it now,” the man said. “You, grey-eyed Athena, are too dainty and too patient.”
“Do not disrespect me, bloodsoaked Ares,” said Athena. “I too am a war god, after all.”
“Ha! You are the god of latrines and logistics. You are the god of strategy and supplies. You are the god of procurements and peace treaties and every sordid detail. You are the god of everything in war except war itself. War, real war—slaughter, bloodshed, butchery—that is my domain. You have no sway there, and so when I say that the bloodletting in the Crimea must resume, your objections hold no weight.” He turned off to the chair. “My king Zeus, who cast down the Titans from their thrones, let me have my will.”
“I would grant it,” Zeus said. “Let the assembly consider, though. Nays?”
Simon barely had the time to realize what was happening; even so, he managed to announce his ‘nay.’
“Yeas?” More voices, more than those before. “The Yeas have it. The war in the Crimea will resume.”
“War,” came the mutter of the mass.
“It’s like a cult,” Simon muttered. A sense of terror and of panic gripped him. Would they all drink a poison at night’s end? Would he be tracked if he tried to escape? Tingles rose in him and he resisted urges to flee out the door in a full run. Even so he flinched–
“Shh,” said Artemis beside him.
“I’m kind of scared.”
“I am too. But let’s see what happens.”
“Zeus all-achieving, I beseech you,” said a woman stepping forth, “I am Coronis, one of those small nymphs whose blessings bring the rains. I beg your leave to shower on the Midwest in the middle of next week.”
“I shall not have this thing,” a burly man said. He came forward with an odd walk, with a strong sway of his hips such that no man could normally achieve. “There is a romance I have cultivated in Chicago. The culmination of it will be Wednesday at a dinner on a roof. I’ll not have rain spoiling my fun.”
“My dear laughter-loving Aphrodite–” Coronis began.
“Ah! I’ll brook no argument,” said Aphrodite, waving his large hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not from a lowly nymph, at least.”
“Let us have a vote,” said Zeus. “Yeas?” There came the utterance of the assembly. “Nays?” Another speaking, louder now. “The Nays have it. There will be no rain in the Midwest this week. Moving on…”
It went like this for so much time, how much time Simon could not tell exactly. The golden light that saturated everything seemed almost to drown out the night’s progression; seconds, minutes, hours melded in a long array as all the masked assembly did its work. One by one a speaker would arise and ask for business on a range of subjects. It could be as ordinary as the sort of apples sold in a bodega out in Queens, or as tremendous as an earthquake in Japan. The business would be argued, there would be some dispute, and then the matter would be put to a voice vote. It was all strangely ordinary. There were no flashing lights, no sparkles, nothing that seemed outwardly extraordinary.
The one thing that seemed odd was not a thing that could be seen. The longer matters proceeded, the more Simon could feel a kind of pressing on his mind. It reminded him of when he’d been in college, and had stolen some medicine for ADHD. He had taken it, hoping to get help on a paper he’d been writing, but all he’d felt was a great pressure, like a weight was sitting on his brain. He felt that now—and yet it was not quite the same.
Still, he continued as he was, and so the time crawled by, until at last Zeus sat a little straighter in his chair and said, “Is there no more business?”
A shaft of thought came blazing into Simon’s mind. He recalled his workday, though it seemed eons ago. And he stepped forward. “Um, excuse me,” he began; his voice seemed small and shaky. “Look, I was hoping that maybe–”
“Is that how you speak to Zeus Of All the Greeks?”
“Oh, I, um–” that itch was sharp inside his head. He scratched it, and at once he stood up straighter. In the next breath he bowed. “Forgive me, O Zeus of the Aegis, forgive my impertinence. I did not mean to seem uncouth.”
“It is forgiven, Apollo, music maker, light-bringer,” Zeus said. “What is your business?”
“Indeed, my lord, you know that music is among my special loves. There is a concert being held this weekend in the park. It promises to be a great good thing; however, there is a chance of rain. I would beseech you for sunshine all this weekend.”
“I shall second his request, O Zeus bringer of storms,” said Artemis, stepping next to Simon. “Grant my brother what he seeks.”
“No doubt you would gain some benefit yourself from sunny weather, Artemis of the Open Countryside,” said Ares, stepping forth. “However, I shall voice my opposition. Sun in New York City means rain elsewhere, as the world’s weather goes. In particular it will mean a shower in Israel, where there is to be a surprise attack on Saturday. I would not have that ambush disrupted.”
“There is enough war in this world already, O Ares, vulture king,” said Simon. “Surely one less surprise attack would not grieve you too much.”
“It would,” said Ares. “This attack will restart the conflict in that region, which has lain dormant now too long. I would have sun there, and for that to happen there must be rain in New York City.”
“And you wonder why you are the lowest,” growled Artemis. “Light, love, beauty, all that my brother stands for are abhorrent to you. All good men revile you, and your bloody craft.”
“Hush, daughter of the moon,” said Ares, stepping forth. “In your time you have killed many men yourself—as has your brother, the archer who strikes from worlds away. I’ll not be lectured by the likes of you. Indeed, I think you are too high, O Artemis Resounding, and always have been. You are a virgin goddess; perhaps it’s time you weren’t.”
Simon stepped in front of Artemis and stood completely straight. “If you so much as brush her dress, I’ll visit such a wrath on you that it will seem that I, not you, am god of war!” The lights within the ballroom seemed to glimmer, though it might just have been his imagination.
“Enough,” said Zeus, his voice level and flat but still containing strength.
“O Zeus,” said Simon, turning back to him, “Zeus who loves the lightning, I beseech you. Please.”
There was a pause, then Zeus said, “Let us vote on whether there will be sunshine in New York City. Yeas?” The cries came out. “Nays?” Again. “The Yeas have it. This weekend will be sunny in New York.” Simon breathed out in relief. “Is there any further business?” No one spoke. “Very well, then. This assembly is closed.”
There was a chime then, and it echoed through the air. Zeus stood from his chair and started out; the crowd parted around him. He was halfway across the ballroom before Simon realized he was heading for the door. It opened for him, then it closed behind him. All was quiet for a long while. Then the door opened again. “Poseidon,” someone called out through it. The woman in the red dress who had stood beside the throne went walking towards the door; as with Zeus, the crowd parted around her. She reached the door, and passed through it; once again it closed. There was another long and nervous pause, one that seemed to stretch away forever. Then the door again came open, and the voice called, “Hades,” and the heavy man walked off.
So it went, one by one the people leaving as their names were called. Hera, Hestia, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Athena, on it went.
At last the door came open yet again. “Apollo.”
Simon turned to Artemis. “Will I see you again?”
“I thought so.” He squeezed her hand. “Goodbye.” And he turned and started off across the massive ballroom. He passed the doorway and again was in the space above the stairs.
No one else was there except the masked man who had first escorted him. He held a hand out. “Your mask.”
“Oh, right,” said Simon. He pulled the strap back and the mask came off. It felt almost like peeling off his skin; he felt a little empty as he handed it away. The man replaced the mask upon the table. He started down the stairs, and Simon followed.
They reached the bottom, and the man opened the door. “Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” said Simon, stepping through the door onto the stoop outside. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“Janus,” said the man. “Good night.” He closed the door, and Simon turned off and was on his way, not saying a word the whole way home.
Saturday morning dawned gently and reluctantly without the normal burst of happy sunlight.
Simon sat up in his bed. He rubbed his eyes, he rolled his head and flexed his dark-skinned shoulders. He walked across his bedroom to the bathroom, where he turned the radio on to the news. He looked upon his face. He looked all over, seeking some trace that was permanent of what had happened in the night when he had been there in that ballroom lighted gentle lovely gold. There was none. He sighed deeply, then turned to the radio and fiddled with the dial. He made the speakers fuzz and crackle as he cycled through the stations.
He stopped his turning. Violins and french horns waxed out of the radio, filling up the bathroom with a symphony. Simon smiled to hear it—then he had a thought. Walking back into the bedroom as the radio was blaring out, he grabbed his laptop and he flicked it on. He fired up the internet and checked the weather forecast.
C. A. Shoultz is a writer and poet currently living in Texas. His most recent feature for us was the poem, “Into the Depths of the Trees.”