Between my tiny little flat and the university campus, I spent little time anywhere else. Other than the walk, of course, which ate up a considerable hour and a half of any day I had classes. So, even though I had passed it twice a day, nearly every day, for almost three years now, I hadn't given the antique shop more than a cursory glance.
But today was different. The display had changed, as it did every month. I guessed the
shopkeeper did it whenever they decided the tired old trinkets in the window weren't likely to attract anyone else. Usually, it was an incohesive mass of dusty junk, but today was different, interesting even. I stopped, hooking my thumbs into my heavy backpack, full of sketchbooks and art supplies, rocking back on my heels to take it all in.
The display was a testament to adventure and travel. An old map in a gilded frame comprised a lot of the backdrop, triangular banners hanging from twine draped above the display. An old brass telescope, a sextant, and an exquisite ship-in-a-bottle comprised one collection a little off-center. Nearby, a compass, made of copper or brass, gleamed as if brand new on a pillow of purple velvet. This one was particularly pretty, and even from here, I could see the ornate needle pointing north, pointing toward me. That was a clever move on the shopkeeper's part.
Completing the central display was a leather stool, lace opera gloves draped over it and
wonderfully complimented by an ornate mask, the two items straight out of a rococo princess'
bedchamber. A steamer trunk, battered with time and age, sat squatly in a corner, the heavily stickered front propped open just enough for more lace and silks to peep out of the crack. In the other corner, a tired, dull machete leaned, naked tip down, a necklace of what looked like Aztec gold draped around the hilt.
The university had recently announced a Halloween ball, and some of these things would make for amazing costumes. After all, with everyone being a neurotic creative of one brand or another, myself included, it did well to stand out. Everyone was already talking about the ornate masks they planned to carve or sculpt, the period-correct costumes they hoped to sew.
The mask, though, was what held my interest. Showing up as someone capable of making Marie Antoinette scoff in annoyance at the sheer flamboyance buoyed my little artist's heart.
So, I stepped in, knowing full well I probably couldn't afford anything properly antique. The door closed behind me, as if on a gentle spring.
"Good afternoon," a woman greeted. She was an antique herself; crepe paper skin and
white-silver hair swept into a style that had fallen out of favor forty years ago. "Can I interest you in anything?"
"I have a party coming up, and I wanted something unique to wear," I admitted. "I really like
the mask in the window."
"Oh, yes, that's a fantastic one. I bought it myself in Italy some time ago, and have finally
decided to part ways with it. In fact, most of that display is from my personal collection." She beamed, like it was a crowning achievement to accumulate old junk. But, then again, it was kind of her bread and butter.
My smile, already small, faltered. "That sounds expensive."
"Some of them, yes. I see you quite often, though, passing by, but I don't remember you ever coming in. Living in a college town, I understand that students don't usually have a lot of spare cash, but maybe we can work something out. Give you a bit of a break for once. You do look exhausted, dear."
I was tired, but it was unnerving to know it was that visible.
As she went to retrieve the mask from the display window, she told me the tale of the woman it had belonged to. An acclaimed opera singer, she was so beloved by her fans that she only wore masks in public, attempting to maintain a little anonymity.
The only person who did know what she looked like was the mysterious man she fell in love with. He'd been so enamored with her voice that he dared to speak to her after a concert one night, and from that day on, he was hooked. Loving her charm and wit, he was persistent in his courtship, unconcerned and uncaring of what she looked like.
Returning, the antique dealer handed me the mask. It was heavier and more beautiful than it had appeared in the window.
I turned it over in my hands. "Oh."
"Knowing the story behind something gives it more weight, doesn't it?" She smiled, cheeks wrinkling.
"Do all the objects here have stories?"
"Every one of them. Antique stores are like libraries; full of stories. They tell of adventure and mystery, happiness and sadness." She laughed. "I'm a librarian for all things that tell their own tales.
The ones that haven't been, or don’t wish to be, written down."
“That’s really kind of charming,” I mused, lifting the mask to my face and eyeballing the fit.
“Darling, you look like you were made for it,” the storekeeper gasped. “But I couldn’t possibly let it go without the compass, you know. They aren’t meant to be separated again.”
“The mask and the compass?”
“The opera singer and the courtier. Oh, yes, she thought it was true love. You can’t keep that apart. Just like you can’t keep an artist from creating.”
“How much for both?” I asked, steeling myself for the hefty sum that would surely follow.
“A dollar. But you must come back after your party to tell me how it went. That’s my price.”
“Only a dollar?”
“And a story. I like those more, you know.” The proprietor smiled, eyes crinkling.
When I was little, my grandmother taught me how to sew. These days, I spent much of my free time in my flat, sewing things to help pay my rent. Because of this, I was in the craft store a lot, picking up designer fabric whenever it went on sale. A particular bolt I had been saving would match this mask perfectly, and as I slipped my newest purchase on for inspiration, I knew something great was about to happen.
That was when it hit me, like a ravening hunger, a feverish desire to create, to make something worthwhile. Inspiration buzzed through my brain, sending it into overdrive as idea after idea, flowing forth like undulating waves, crashed into me.
A day and a half later, I snapped out of it, the creative hunger finally sated. I sat back against the wall of my apartment, breathing heavily, appraising the sewing mannequin in the most elegant ballgown I’d ever seen. It was all chenille and lace and satin, truly fitting for a rococo princess and the perfect companion piece to the mask I still wore.
Only once I was done admiring it did I let my eyes travel across my apartment, taking in the scattered page after page of sketches I didn’t even remember doing. Never before had I been sucked into the creative space so deeply and absolutely. The dress and art seemed to have appeared as if by magic, but the cuts, charcoal, and callouses covering my hands told a different story. I just didn’t remember getting them, which normally would have concerned me, and yes, I did miss a class or two, but everyone needs a mental health day once in a while. Clearly, I needed to take some time to do what I do best, which was to make something that suffused me with joy.
Joy wasn’t quite the right word either, though. It didn’t feel full enough, not for how whole I
felt. That was, until I took the mask off, the feeling, ever so slowly, beginning to dwindle. It felt like I was losing something, stepping out of costume. Maybe I was simply too excited about the Halloween party now, and the thought of getting to show off this glorious costume I made myself, well, I couldn’t wait. An excited buzz danced over my skin.
Setting the mask alongside the compass on my coffee table, I began to count the days until the dance.
With a week to go, I was on the sofa, bored of the show I was trying to watch, and itching to make something again. The mask seemed to be my lucky charm, so I picked it up and slipped it back on. Instantly, the hunger returned, an empty void that could only be filled by the act of creation.
I inhaled deeply. Perhaps some painting was in order.
I woke, curled up in a painter’s sheet. Thankfully, it was mostly clean and dry, other than a blue splotch on a corner laying on the floor instead of over my feet. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but then again, I didn’t remember painting one, no, two...
I continued counting, nervous sweat trickling down my spine. I’d gone through my entire
collection of spare canvases, at least a dozen. And apparently, after that, I had moved onto a bedsheet hanging in the living room, before claiming one wall of my dining area. But it was all amazing, my best work ever, and my heart swelled, brimming with confidence and satisfaction. Remembering the mask, I removed it to make sure I hadn’t gotten any paint on it. I hadn’t, and I laid it back on the table.
How long had I painted? How long had I slept?
The clock on the wall read 7:45, and it was too bright to be evening. Oh good, I hadn’t missed class, even if I had been up half the night.
Or...for two days, if the date on my phone was correct. There was no way. No way. Had I fallen so deeply into inspiration again? My stomach rumbled as if to confirm the claim. Putting off eating to take a shower, I washed away the paint clinging to my hands and bare feet, the adrenaline rush wearing off as I did. Now, I was just tired, but I forced myself to go to classes, all the while trying to make sense of what had happened twice now.
Something was happening, affecting me in a way I couldn’t explain, and impacting my studies. I’d worked too hard to flunk out, and I should have been more concerned, but I couldn’t argue with the results of my creative fugue. Thinking hard, I recalled small bits, splashes of memory, from my time creating.
Pricking my thumb on a needle after cutting miles of silk ribbon. One of the sketchbook pages had been filled with a self-portrait smudged in my own blood.
Pulling out the canvases, and being upset when I ran out.
But they were all just shadows and snippets. Just enough to convince me I wasn’t going insane. But firmly at the root of it all, was the mask. Of it all starting after I put it on. Maybe the opera singer’s spirit was my new muse? I didn’t know, but the thought of having so little control over myself once the bug to create bit me was a little scary. And also exhilarating. If I was being honest, I’d felt less burnt out and run-down than I had in a few months, and it was amazing.
The compass sat snuggly in my little clutch as I headed to the party. It seemed wrong to leave the courtier at home when the starlet accompanied me. I kept the mask off while I went through security, sliding it on just before opening the door. Once I entered the gymnasium, I found myself in a world transformed. Gnarled trees carved out of foam and hanging rubber bats created a spooky forest, and a fog machine belched green and silver mist over the floor, which curled away as I moved through it.
Unsurprisingly, no one swooped in to meet me, no one called my name from across the room. I wasn’t very popular, so no one offered to dance with me, or get me a drink. You needed friends for that, and I hadn’t really made any. I’d been too busy, too invested in my studies, too in my own head, I guess, for any of that. But I’d still wanted to come. Halloween was my favorite holiday, other than, perhaps, Christmas.
A hollow hunger entered me as I wondered what to do next, starting in the pit of my belly and creeping out until my skin buzzed. I wanted to create, but I wasn’t sure what. Nothing here was a medium I was familiar with.
From my clutch, a scratching sound caught my attention, and in my confusion, I was almost afraid I’d open it to find a mouse inside. Purses normally didn’t sound like that.
When I finally forced myself to look inside, the sound grew louder, and I found the compass needle spinning wildly. Almost as if realizing it was caught in the act, the needle snapped in my direction, despite that not being North. Directly at me. I shifted a little on my feet, angling ever so slightly to the right. The needle didn’t move, didn’t follow, simply remained fixed. I exhaled shakily, pulling the brass contraption out.
A burst of energy seemed to rush through me and into the compass as soon as I did. The needle swung wildly once more, a blur until it settled down, pointing off towards the east wall and the door nestled within.
I looked around, heart beating a tattoo against my ribcage. Should I...follow it? Within the fog and the foam trees, people mingled, none of them paying any attention to me.
Why not? What should one do when a mysterious compass you received for free in a junk shop starts moving of its own accord? Follow it, of course, especially on the night when the veil between worlds was thinnest. Or that was the story, anyway, as far as I remembered. I really wasn’t good at folklore. Which might not work in my favor, if this didn’t end well.
Cupping the compass against my chest, I followed its direction, weaving through the crowd as the needle rocked toward the door. Well, at least it was specific, shifting in a completely different direction as I left the gym. The heels of my buckled shoes clicked on the worn tile of the school’s hallway, which felt like more of a ghost town than the spooky forest. No one else seemed to be here, in this wing.
Reaching the woodwork shop, the compass led to tools and unfinished projects strewn over the workstations. I still felt inspiration coursing through me, searching for an outlet, but this certainly wasn’t my normal medium. Passing the compass over the table, the needle selected a sharp knife, probably used for whittling, a handful of nails, and a hammer. I threw them into my clutch, and the compass, seemingly satisfied, pointed me in a new direction.
My throat tightened, my heart pounded. This was a real adventure, and I had no idea where the
compass would lead me next.
I was in the antique shop when I rose out of the creative fugue state wearing the mask always seemed to inspire me to. My muse, the opera starlet, and my finder of inspiration, the courtier, had come through once again. I felt...sated.
The store owner smiled at me from across the table. We were sitting in her back room, I
guessed, if all the boxes stacked around us and the rickety old table was anything to go by. A steaming cup of hot tea sat before me. Chamomile, I thought. I could taste it.
“So, how was your dance, dear?” she said, her eyes glinting over her own cup. I felt stiff, and a little tired, but the drink made my bones feel nice and warm.
“Um, I don’t remember too much, so it must have not been particularly good,” I admitted. A writhing sensation uncoiled in my stomach.
“Nothing at all? Was it the mask?”
My eyes narrowed, fully acknowledging the woman’s eager expression. “Why did you want me to come visit after the dance?”
“Because I wanted to see what would happen after you wore the mask, of course,” she replied, taking a dainty sip. “It’s very special to me.”
“What are those things? Truly.” I nodded to the mask and the compass. The shopkeeper
“My name is Valentina Guilia Rossi Milano, and once upon a time, I was an opera singer for
“That’s impossible, that was ages ago.”
“Yes,” she said, voice tinged with sadness, “it was. But nevertheless, here I am. And that was my mask.”
“And the compass? He was real, too?”
“Oh, yes, he was very real. Real and terrible. Our love was tainted by his insatiable hunger, and after what he did to me, and I to him,” she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. “I didn’t want to wear the mask anymore. Something happened that night, and it left an echo in those two items. It is the burden of their story. The weight they carry.”
“What changed the mask?”
“His hunger. And the compass, my desire. My desire for him to be who I thought he was,
something he never truly was. Not even close.” She sighed. “The mask amplifies a person’s
hunger—for love, for passion, for creation, for whatever their soul is starving the most for. The
compass points the leads to what they truly desire. But sometimes...it doesn’t go to plan. Sometimes, the... wrongness... creeps back into the act. It is a gamble, like waving a red cloth at a bull. How many times did you wear the mask?”
“And how many times did you do this?” She slid a newspaper from under her chair and onto the table. The headline read: COLLEGE STUDENT FOUND BRUTALLY MURDERED IN
SUPPOSED HALLOWEEN SATANIC RITUAL. I pulled it closer and skimmed the article. The
student, no one I recognized the name of, was found in the woods near the school...nailed to a tree to maintain a pose, her skin decorated with arching loops and swirls cut from the knife.
“No,” I breathed.
“I’m afraid so, dear. Just look at yourself.”
I was afraid to look down, and the writhing in my gut worsened, making me feel ill. I closed my eyes.
“No, perhaps it’s better if you don’t,” she chided, which naturally ensured I did just that. My
dress, my beautiful dress, was covered in crimson drops and splashes of red. A nail stared back at me, accusingly, tangled in some ripped lace. I vaguely remembered grabbing the tools off the bench, but after that, a blank void existed in my memory.
“What do I do?” I felt so small, so used. How dare she give me these things if she knew what might happen? But there was also that memory, the tingling pleasure of inspiration, of doing my best work no matter the cost. That was passion, wasn’t it?
“You can do what you have been doing, and acknowledge the gamble you are taking. You can wear the mask, give into your hunger for creation, for art, and spin the roulette wheel to discover which type of inspiration hits. Yours...or his. He had a hunger, too, but his art was nothing like yours. Something I didn’t find out until much later.” She looked even older now, more melancholy, more frail.
“What are you?”
“I am but a humble shopkeeper, a librarian burdened with stories.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Maybe one day, child, I’ll burden you with my whole story. But first, you must choose. Would you like to abandon the objects and go back to your scheduled existence, with barely a minute left to you to call your own and pursue what you love? Or would you like to work here instead, collecting stories and helping to create new ones with me, together.” Her eyes sparkled.
I exhaled through my nose.
“Can you help me control it?”
She nodded, once. “We can try.”
“Okay. Now, tell me the whole story.”
And she did. For better. Or for worse.
Malise, the winner of WriterVana's October 2022 writing contest, is a fantasy, contemporary romance, general fiction, paranormal, sci-fi, and horror writer.