Once upon a time, in a place closer to here than you think, lived an old man who, the grownups said, used to guard the great palace that could be seen from the village square. The children all knew that the palace was old and abandoned and falling to ruin. None were allowed anywhere near its rusted gates.
But that did not stop them from gathering in the square some nights before supper and staring at its great towers. Through the mists of evening, up there on the brooding mountaintop, crouching like some dying beast of myth, the sad, deserted palace drowsed as the children watched and wondered and whispered among themselves of the mysterious memories it hoarded of its glorious days of splendor.
A score or more of mangy, scarred, stinking grey monkeys, vicious and violent beyond all bearing, scuttled up and down the decrepit walls, holdovers (or so said the grownups) from the last stockade of animals kept at the palace for the amusement of the Prince.
But always, just before sunset, the monkeys disappeared behind the decaying walls, and from then until well after dawn no life stirred; it was as if the cheerlessness of the place, formless during the day, became a ghost who haunted the ruins when the moon rose in the sky, one so fearsome that even the wildest and most dangerous of creatures dared not cross its path or make any sound to attract its attention.
And that is how it came to be known as the Specter's Palace.
Well, imagine if you can, how excited the children were to discover that there lived, right here in their very own village, someone who once worked within the palace!
"Do not bother him," said their parents. "Hazlitt is a very old and very sick man. His last days on this earth should not be burdened by children troubling him for stories."
The children did as they were told, leaving Hazlitt to his errands in the village and never knocking upon his door, but one night, on the eve of the Harvest Moon, Hazlitt seated himself on the rim of the great stone fountain in the square and waited for the children to gather. As they did, he smiled at them and said, "Fetch your mothers and fathers so they, too, might hear what I've to say, and be quick about it."
When the entire village was at last gathered 'round the old guard, Hazlitt cleared his throat, took a sip of cool water from the fountain, and greeted the villagers warmly.
He then looked toward the Specter's Palace and said: "Listen. A vast quiet enfolds that deserted shrine, and the wind blows a fetid stench? Is that the hint of an echo from behind its walls?"
"In his day the Prince was absolute, ruling over a population of six million souls. Countless grandiose titles blazed upon his colorful banner. One, born from the sheer fantasy that often accompanies boredom, was, 'Lord of the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, All Continents Submerged Under the Sea and Those Who Live, Have Lived, or Ever Will Live there.'
"One could hardly be more inclusive.
"During this year in which my story takes place, the palace was beginning to show neglect, for the Prince was an invalid chained to his couch by obesity and stiffened, scabrous limbs, as well as supreme and all-consuming ennui. The entire concern of his ministers was focused on the notion that constant entertainment alone would keep him contented--as well as their heads on their shoulders, for whenever the Prince grew too bored his disposition darkened, and nothing short of a good, bloody display of torture--followed by a beheading--would cheer his spirits. If the subject of this torture was also a young virgin--it mattered not whether it was a girl or boy--who had first been beaten and repeatedly defiled before his eyes, all the better for his mood. And if the virgin's entire family where summarily tortured and killed alongside their child, well, that was a good day, indeed. Since all of the Prince's ministers had families--among them virginal children--his total contentment was their sole purpose in life.
"But all of their efforts failed. Hundreds of weirdly painted, gilded, and otherwise bizarrely caparisoned elephants were prodded into mortal combat, but their slow and bloody deaths failed to produce so much as a smirk on his face; dancing girls who fell out of step were whipped to crimson ribbons for diversion, their flailed flesh stitched into a cloak that was draped about his massive shoulders, but their hideous shrieks for mercy were met only by his yawns; two of his wives were publicly poisoned, but the Prince did not allow even the ghost of a smile to cross his face when one of the women, wracked with convulsions, beat out her brains against the marble dais where he reclined.
"'What are we to do?' cried one of the ministers in a private meeting later that night. 'His Majesty seems more bored and disagreeable than ever.'
"'Pray,' answered another minister.
"Their prayers were seemingly answered the following day, for a lone traveler stopped to rest outside the palace and told one of the guards--myself, I can tell you now--about a circus that was at that moment visiting his home, and of the amazing, happy, wondrous entertainment its performers gave to the people. I thanked this traveler and ran at once to the ministers with the news. A dispatch was immediately sent to the traveler's village summoning the performers to the palace.
"The arrival of the circus at the palace was a miracle of timing, for that very morn the Prince had roared that countless forms of unspeakable horror would be loosed upon all under his rule unless he was immediately and successfully amused.
"The doors to the throne room were flung open wide, and a thundering voice cried out: 'Your Most Resplendent, Wise, Holy, and Powerful Majesty! For your entertainment, a display of such artistry and wit even the angels would be moved!'
"Among the many performers hastened before the Prince was a Harlequin, known only as 'Siempre.' His renown in other parts of the world was unequaled. From that day on, it was Siempre who the Prince called upon at all hours to amuse him.
"Eventually the circus moved on, but Siempre, rewarded with fabulous wealth by the Prince and deep respect from all who lived in the kingdom, remained. And for many years Siempre performed for the Prince, who greatly admired the Harlequin's abilities as a clown, dancer, and spinner-of-countless-tales. None had ever made the Prince laugh so often or so loudly.
"But though he often laughed, the Prince seldom smiled, for much of his character remained brutal and savage, as is so often the case with pampered and arrogant princes who are given absolute power at an early age. The Prince began to notice the way his subjects gazed upon Siempre whenever the Harlequin walked through the palace or visited the villages. No one had ever looked upon the Prince with such awe and affection.
"The Prince became jealous that Siempre's popularity was far surpassing his own. One minister suggested that, if used properly, Siempre might be useful in restoring the Prince's standing in the eyes of his subjects. This idea held great appeal to the obese ruler, who summoned Siempre to his chamber one night and said, 'I wish to learn of your comedic ways so that I too might make my subjects smile. I was, for so long, unkind to them, and I wish to reward their loyalty. Teach me your craft.'
"In truth, the Prince's motives were far less noble; he was no longer the center of his subjects' lives and attention and thoughts, and wanted for them to admire only him. Upon the whims of such selfishness have nations crumbled into the sea.
"Siempre, who was sworn to protect the secrets of his craft, told the Prince in respectful tones that he was honor-bound not to reveal the mysteries of his art. Though the Prince at first raged at this, he came to accept Siempre's will.
"'Then make me a mask such as yours. If I cannot possess your secrets, I will at least sport a like countenance. That will show my people that I am, indeed, a changed man.'
"Alas, Siempre could not grant the Prince even this small request, for the mask of every clown--Pulcinella, Pantalone, or Harlequin--is as individual to them as a man's character. If one were to look closely at the Harlequin, one would see that the contours differ greatly from mask to mask, each one adhering to the structure and movements of the face which wears it: the two faces, it is said, become one, and if the practitioner is truly worthy of his art, the mask turns to skin so that a third face emerges from within the two, the True Face: the one which the practitioner had before his parents were born.
"Such was the case with Siempre, who explained all of this to the Prince in soft, compassionate, respectful tones. 'If it please Your Majesty,' said the Harlequin, 'I shall make it my foremost purpose to speak well of you throughout the kingdom, so that your subjects will know your grand heart is no longer blackened by the bloodlust and twisted sick-mindedness that so permeated your youth.'
"The prince said nothing for the longest time; then he smiled and said to the Harlequin, 'That would please me greatly.'
"Lies can fall as sweetly as petals from a rose when they come from the lips of one such as the Prince.
"Dismissing Siempre, the Prince turned to his ministers and cried, 'I shall have his face for my own!'
"And so began the plot against the man who had brought so much joy into the Prince's life, and so much peace to the kingdom.
"For years the Prince lay in wait for the perfect moment, and chose the Festival of Royal Birth to bring his scheme to fruition.
"A sacrifice of a goat was performed on a ceremonial slab high on the west tower of the palace. After the ceremony, Siempre began his dance, depicting, at first, an old man shambling toward Death, his life devoid of happiness or purpose, when suddenly he sees a young maiden walking in a garden. Cupid appears, draws back his bow, and pierces the old man with Love. Suddenly very still, the old man suddenly becomes a swift and eager youth who showers the maiden with poetry and gifts, among them a sleek black leopard and majestic golden owl.
"Siempre did not know that the Prince had paid the zookeeper handsomely to train these animals against him. When the appointed time came for these animals to make their entrance, the leopard crept in, the owl riding upon the nape of its neck, held there by a special harness the zookeeper had fashioned.
"Upon seeing this Siempre realized that the Prince meant him harm. He turned toward the divan where the Prince, who was now so grossly immense it took no fewer than five attendants--myself among them--to turn him in his bed, sat smiling a smile so perverted that the Harlequin knew at once the ruler was mad.
"'I beg of Your Majesty, do not do this. The answers which lie behind this mask are of a nature so vast and prevailing that no man can live with the knowledge.'
"'Beg all you want, clown,' snarled the Prince, 'but there lives in this land none who has ever denied me...and lived.'
"Siempre looked around, saw the guards with their swords and spears at the ready, then folded his hands as if to utter a prayer. 'Will Your Majesty allow me to entertain the court with one last story?'
"'If you must,' replied the Prince.
"'You are too kind,' replied the Harlequin. Clearing his throat--and never once taking his gaze from the Prince's face, Siempre told his last story:
"'Once upon a time, in a kingdom very much like this one, there lived a young man of considerable wealth and power. While visiting the village one day he happened upon a small shop which sold antiquities. Among the items in this shop was an ancient Egyptian vase, thousands of years old. The young man took the vase from the shop and returned to his home where he put forth much effort to break the seal which held close the vase So he might get to the treasures he was certain were hidden within. Try as he did, he could not pry the lid from it. Finally, in a fit of youthful, impatient rage, he smashed the vase on the floor. Inside was only one object: A single, perfect red rose from five thousand years ago. For a moment the boy inhaled the scent of the rose and was overwhelmed by its heady, intoxicating nature...but then, of course, he felt cheated, for he was certain the vase had contained jewels of great value. Still, he admitted to himself, the rose gave off a wondrous scent, unlike any other flower he'd ever smelled before. He decided to give the rose to his mother, but when he looked down at his feet he saw that the rose had crumbled into dust. Many, many years later, when the young boy was an old man lying on his deathbed, a priest asked him to confess his greatest sin, and the old man whispered, "I am ashamed that I did not recognize the priceless treasure the old rose gave to me." And so he died, his final words remaining forever a mystery to those who were present to hear them.'
"The Prince--confused and unmoved by the Harlequin's story--produced from the pocket of his robe a flute and blew three long, shrill notes into the air. Leopard and owl as one leaped upon Siempre and with talon and claw tore his mask and face from his skull. The Harlequin fell to the floor, screaming, hands covering the raw, seeping red meat where once the base of his One True Face had been. Blood soaked his costume through. The people of the court and kingdom stood shocked and silent.
"The chief minister carried the soft, pliant, dripping mask-face up to the Prince and placed it in his trembling hands.
"Then, to the horror of all present, Siempre rose to his feet and pulled his hands away from his skull. His eyes remained in their sockets and stared at the Prince not with hatred, but pity.
"'Wear it well,' he croaked in a ragged voice that held all the sorrowful rot of the deepest, dankest crypt, 'for you shall not wear it long. It is the beginnings of my One True Face, not yours, and no craftsman, alchemist, or magician can make it so.'
"The Prince laughed at this and snapped his fingers. Guards fell on Siempre--I was one of them, I am ashamed to say--dousing him in oil and setting him aflame. He ran laughing through the palace and through the gates, disappearing into the mountains.
"'Now,' said the Prince to his subjects, 'I shall be the one who gives laughter to your hearts and to whom you show such affection and awe.' He lifted the warm, seeping mask-face high above his head, allowing a few thick globules of Siempre's blood to spatter on his flesh, then quickly and firmly draped the Harlequin's face over his own.
"The Prince began to twirl and shuffle, as if in the beginnings of a Harlequin's Dance, and strange sounds came from deep inside him; but, at last, he became very still, a statue, something carved from stone. The sounds from deep within him--sometimes lunatic tunes, sometimes words that appeared to be answers to questions no one else
could hear being asked--took on a musical, contented quality as the power of the trance became greater.
"Then something ... happened.
"They say if you stand atop the west tower during the time which once was known as the Festival of Royal Birth--the time you now call the Night of the Harvest Moon--you can still hear the echo of the terrible, anguished scream that exploded from the Prince at a few moments after Siempre's severed mask-face came into contact with his flesh. It is, they say, a prolonged shriek of unparalleled horror, one that grew so loud and rose so high that its sound encircles the Earth forevermore.
"And, if you have the courage to listen closely, somewhere amidst that echo can be heard the last words the Prince ever spoke before collapsing into a cold, dead heap:
"'Yes, I see them. So many children. Your brothers and sister...and I despair. Yes, I despair!'
"Upon the Prince's death, Siempre's mask-face was thrown into a vat of bubbling lead in hopes the fiery temperature would destroy it. When later the vat was emptied, the Harlequin's mask-face, now forever encased in lead, tumbled out onto the floor.
"A servant whose duty it was to dispose of the mask-face claimed that, as she lifted it from the floor, its still lips suddenly formed a benevolent smile. Terrified, she hurled the mask-face against a wall where it shattered into thirteen pieces. These pieces were then gathered and distributed among only the most trusted of the Prince's guards--myself
included. Each of us was given a map of a different continent, then instructed to take our section of the mask-face, journey to our assigned continent, buy a horse of the strongest and noblest lineage, and travel as far as our horses could carry us. When neither us nor our horses could move any farther, we were to dig a hole thirteen feet deep, bury our section of the mask-face, and fill in the hole so that no one would be able to tell it was there.
"Each soldier carried out his duties to the letter.
"Except for one.
"I knew in my heart that the palace must be left with some reminder of what the Prince had done to Siempre, so on the night before I was to leave on my journey, I stole into the courtyard in the middle of the night and buried my section there. In the morning I left with the others, so as to not arouse suspicion.
"But that one section of the mask-face remains buried in the ruins of the palace. And every night, when the moon is high and the animals fall silent, know that it is because the Harlequin walks the ruins, searching for the piece of his One True Face that is buried beneath the rubble."
His tale finished, Hazlitt rose, picked up his pack, and wished everyone in the square a good night. It was only as he neared the edge of the village that he turned and saw a young boy following him.
"You would be the orphaned boy, Rael?" asked Hazlitt, for a dream the previous night had told him he would meet this child.
"Yes, sir, that I be."
Gesturing the child closer, Hazlitt reached into his pack and removed a long, thin, shiny object, which he placed into Rael's hands. "This, boy, is the very flute which the Prince often played to signal his guards it was time to begin the torture of one more innocent child. I took it from his body that day. You take it now, Rael, and learn to play only the most beautiful of tunes upon it. Then, for me, play those tunes as often and as well as you can."
"But the villagers," said Rael, "they might grow tired of my playing."
Hazlitt smiled. "That is why you cannot remain here, boy. Come close, and I'll tell you a secret."
And the old guard told the boy where lay the thirteen places on this earth the pieces of the mask-face were buried. "Each is buried at the base of a mountain, boy, and you'll know these mountains because each of them will open for you if you command them to do so." Hazlitt then told Rael the words he must speak to make the mountains open up. "I'll show you the first," said the old guard, "for it's right there, easily seen from the village square. The rest you will find easily enough on your own.
"Find others such as yourself, Rael, and let your music bring joy into their lives. And if you find the music is not enough, then take them with you into the mountains, to the special world that waits within."
Then, patting the boy's head and pointing him toward the place where the mountain would open up upon his command, Hazlitt wandered off into the night to find a suitable place to die. Whether or not he did die that night, no one ever knew. But he was never seen or heard from again.
As for the orphan boy, Rael, he did as Hazlitt told him, and eventually found all of the opening mountains. He lived a long life, filled with friends and music and many great adventures--perhaps you've even read about some of them. He once played his music for the children in a village called Hamelin. But that is another story for another time; until then, look there, up toward the ruins. See the shuffling, hunched figure making its way over the collapsed walls and piles of stones? Could that be Siempre, still searching? So quiet are the animals. So still. Do you think they have known the treasure of the old rose? Perhaps the Harlequin is not looking for his face, at all; perhaps he searches for dusty petals, or jagged sections of an ancient, smashed vase.
Perhaps he has forgotten what he is searching for.
We can only wonder, and listen to the echo of a sweet, distant music....