I spent a week studying Commedia dell’arte, a form of theater that involves masks and archetypes. It is one of those things that are better experienced than explained. It is so strange, putting on a mask, being severed from yourself and settling into a character. Your demeanor and how you carry yourself starts to change to fit what you see in the mirror and what you feel behind the mask. What’s even stranger is how two people can craft such different characters even while working with the same mask.
This particular mask made me feel so small, restricted, almost claustrophobic. It was extremely hard to express emotion. When I was laughing, a friend of mine said it looked like I was crying. After spending some time with the mask, I wrote this monologue for a performance piece.
By the time I was nine, stealing apples off vendors
in crowded markets was child play.
Shiny coins off unsuspecting customers,
now that meant food for a week.
One time a woman caught me going through her purse,
snatched my wrist like a rat in a trap
and told me sinners go to hell.
I managed to escape, scurried away,
but I could never outrun what she said.
Maybe a week later, I told my mother
about the woman in the market and she said,
Oh, sweetie, it’s not theft. It’s survival.
She worked hard, my mother, but it was never enough.
She chose to keep me fed rather than innocent.
Now, I spend my days slaving under the sun,
odd jobs here and there,
mostly honest work for dishonest men.
My skin heats and reddens, blisters and peels.
Sometimes I think a midnight swim could relieve
the way my face burns and my palms itch,
but only after filling my pockets
with every burden I ever bore —
honest coins in my left
survival coins in my right.
Before cashing out, the woman from the market,
the one I can never escape
like a permanent stain on my soul,
comes to me and sneers,
no sinner deserves such a poetic death.
I think of mother then
and how she feared the void
and tried to fill it like squeezing into shoes
so tight they make your feet swell.
Then I end up here. Always. Like clockwork.
I take the coins from my pockets
and set them on my mother’s grave instead.