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Masks She Wears by Laurence Sullivan

“Who do I play?”
    “A woman, a woman desperately in love with a man. A strong German man.”
    “With the blonde hair and blue eyes?” Blanche lifted her gloved hands to her eyes, delicately framing her face – usually a trick the camera would perform for her.
    “Yes, most certainly,” the man replied, removing his glasses and rubbing them methodically, “but there is a problem.” Blanche wordlessly raised an eyebrow, as if this alone would be reply enough. “Another man. A Jew. He corrupts you, kills your true love – all to steal your family fortune.”
    “Is this really what the German people want to see?” she asked, doing little to hide the exasperation in her voice.
    “The script arrived signed and stamped from the Reichschancellery this morning,” the man stated, removing some papers from his briefcase and presenting them to Blanche. “By Minister Goebbels himself.”
    There was a deadly silence throughout the room as Blanche slowly arose. She moved like a wounded deer away from her German visitor, as if she were worried he might somehow sense her fear. “I will contact you once I’ve made my decision…”
    “I’m sorry, Madame Étoile,” he replied, rising to his feet, “that simply isn’t possible. I must return to Berlin tonight and we need your answer now. If you please, allow me to place this into perspective for you. Minister Goebbels is a fan of your work and that is a great blessing. So, if you come to Berlin, we can make life very easy for you. The Reichsfilmkammer accredits the Universum Film Studio – the studio we intend you to work for. The same cannot be said for any French company.” The man moved behind Blanche and placed the papers on a table in front of her. “Simply put, Madame, if you do not come to Germany – you will not find work anywhere else.”
     Blanche walked to her grand piano and leaned against it for support, her breath becoming increasingly quick and shallow. “This is an ultimatum then?”
    “Do not think of it that way, Madame, the German film industry is your friend. I am your friend.” The man appeared to smile but his sharp teeth made it seem more like a bear trap opening. “Do we have our answer?”
    “Yes,” she said, coldly.
    “Is that an acceptance?”
    “Yes. Yes it is.” Blanche briskly turned to the bright window overlooking the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. As she moved, her dusky red hair fell across her face like a lace curtain – just barely hiding her emotion.
    That same window would again be filled with light that evening. Just as the actress was preparing to sleep, a black Volkswagen pulled up outside the building. The men who came to the door were disarmingly polite, dressed as if to arrest her while speaking as if to worship her. She was led gently down to the car, her hand gracefully taken by the taller of the two men, who proceeded to open the door to the vehicle and inform their passenger that her belongings would meet up with her again in Berlin. The German state would provide her with everything until that undetermined date.
     This promise was partly fulfilled. Temporary accommodation was provided near the film studio, fine fabrics were brought directly to her door and everything else she desired along with them. All she had to do in return was read her lines and smile on cue. Read her lines and cry on cue. Read her lines and denounce the Jews. She read her lines and did it all on cue.
    The film, of course, was a triumph and the Reichschancellery sent letter after congratulatory letter – dictated by Minster Goebbels himself. How fortunate the German people were to have such a bright French star in their midst. How enlightened she was to see that the Reich had all the right ideas. It was a mutually beneficial relationship and, of course, there would be more movies to come. However, for now, surely she was tired? Exhausted in fact! Making movies was surely hard work – it must take an emotional toll, and the heads of state were aware of that. So, a match would be made, the Étoile de France would be spirited away to Bavaria, where she was set to stay with a general – whose recent triumphs deserved equal reward.
    Less than a day after receiving her latest letter, another black Volkswagen pulled up to her house. Blanche’s heart performed its usual dance: half of pure fear, the other of jubilation. Just as before, two men knocked briskly on her door and led her into the vehicle. This time, they were two different men but with identical uniforms and disconnected expressions.
    The journey was conducted in silence. Blanche occasionally opened her mouth to speak but found the sound lodged in her throat. Hours of painful silence were her only companion – her single point of contact was that they would end up in Bavaria. This was her reward for all of her kindness to the German Reich.
    The car handled the increasingly mountainous terrain with ease; eventually resting outside a beautiful wooden building – an estate nestled among the profusion of trees. Within moments of arriving, one of the men had opened the back door of the car to let Blanche out. Unlike the last man, he refused to take her hand. After receiving a genuinely kind smile from the actress, the man wordlessly returned to his vehicle and saluted Blanche through the window – then drove off.
    Left with nothing but the clothes on her back, Blanche hesitantly moved towards the front door of the estate and knocked weakly on the door.
    “Blanche?” A man in military garb answered the door, an inquisitive smile on his face.
    “Yes,” Blanche replied, unconsciously turning her head toward where the car had just been.
    “General Neumann, congratulations on the film.” A powerful hand was outstretched and quickly grasped Blanche’s delicate white palm in a firm shake.
    “Thank you – this is our home?” she asked, indicating the hallway just beyond the door.
    “Yes, we’ve three maids,” the General began, “two cooks and hopefully the two of us will be hosting a wealth of prestigious officers.”
    “The two of us?”
    “Of course, I received a letter claiming you’d be the perfect hostess – God knows we need you. I’m terrible at it,” he said, laughing heartily, before motioning for Blanche to come inside. “Come on, this way, I’ll show you through to my office.”
     The General politely, but firmly, led Blanche through the narrow wooden corridor. Blanche’s attention was momentarily drawn to the front door, as one of the previously unseen maids went briskly over to close it.
    “You’ll like it here, Blanche,” the General began, turning his head towards his new guest. “It’s an escape from the world.”
    “It’s very beautiful,” Blanche replied, not really looking at her surroundings but rather focusing on the floor.
    “You’ll feel at home very soon, I’m sure. Now, in here is my office.” The General pushed open a quaint pine door, the exact opposite of what Blanche had seen in Berlin. Everything there was made of hard, cold and unforgiving stone. Brutal deco they called it, Blanche thought it just one of those words. Here was different, this room was spacious yet cosy, grand but intimate. As if obeying some unwritten rule, both Blanche and the General moved to inhabit the two seats that stood centre in the room, homely leather chairs that faced each other a small distance apart. "Your German is very good by the way,” he added. “I can understand you perfectly."
     "Thank you, General." Blanche flashed a forced smile.
     "With such fiery hair too,” the General said, running his hands through Blanche’s hair without warning. “Not ideal but certainly not bad. We'll make a true German of you yet!"
     "I am sorry, General,” she exclaimed, pulling away from his grasp. “I am and wish to remain, French."
     The General’s face flashed fury, but that look quickly melted into one of pleasure. "Our little French linnet bird."
     "Linnet bird?"
     "Yes, they sing and are slender.” His eyes quickly scanned the surrounding space. “Pleasing when kept in a cage."
     Blanche’s head snapped back to the General. "You wish to keep me here?"
     "Who wouldn't want a woman of such beauty and talent on their estate?" Blanche nodded absently, as if her soul had ceased to inhabit her body. It was left like a doll, limply, yet perfectly, placed on the chair. In a moment of seemingly genuine concern, the General moved his body forward, to try and get a better look at the woman's face. Blanche shook her head quickly – as if woken from a disturbing dream. Suddenly turning her head to the left, something had clearly caught the linnet bird's eye.
     "This is so beautiful," Blanche declared, raising herself out of her seat and towards an intricately detailed painting of the Flemish countryside. Flat, open and spacious, inhabited solely by a few cattle.
     "I'm glad you think so,” the General said as he moved to join her. “It was a gift actually."
     "Who?" she asked, gazing entranced at the brushstrokes.
     "It's an old piece,” he replied, looking for any indication of age on the frame. “It’s by a Dutch painter, I think."
     "Oh, I'm sorry,” she exclaimed, “I meant who sent it to you?"
     "Ah, there was no formal signature. It was seemingly sent from the entirety of the Reichschancellery,” he said laughing, before taking on a more grave tone, “for my swift success in Poland."
     "I would love to have many paintings like this one."
     "One day you may,” he said, taking Blanche by the hand and leading her back towards her seat. “You see, Blanche, we Germans are generous. All we ask is for your loyalty."
     "I'm sorry, General. My German is not perfect, I do not fully understand," Blanche mumbled, staggering slightly away from the General.
     "For an actress so great, you lie very poorly."
     Blanche lifted her hand to her head, wincing all of a sudden. "I'm sorry, General. I do not feel well. Is there somewhere I can rest?"
     "Of course, just down the hallway, second door on your left,” he said indicating the door – appearing utterly unconvinced. “You may relax there."
     "Thank you.”
     "Sleep well," the General said, smirking slightly, limply raising and waving his hand at Blanche. The actress returned in kind, placing another mask over her face – this time, one of genuine warmth for the man.
     Blanche did as she was bade and found the room with little trouble, it was relatively small but maintained the estate’s feeling of implied grandeur. A four-poster bed dominated the centre, with only a desk and chair – both emblazoned with Nazi regalia, to keep it company. There was a window beside this desk, a large one, as the room was on the ground floor, the delicate wildflowers of the garden bed tapped lightly against the pane in the gentle breeze. Lastly, was the fireplace with a great marble statue of the German eagle atop it – as if soaring high above the floor. Entirely devoid of thought, as if gripped by some unseen force, Blanche moved to the bed and suddenly flopped over it. She let her head fall carelessly over the side, so the world appeared to her to be upside-down. In this position, it seemed that the eagle was falling from its lofty heights, frozen in a state of free fall and uncertainty. If only it could be that way. The eagle had so effortlessly grabbed Europe in its talons, each nation falling like mice to the mighty bird of prey. If it could so easily dominate entire countries, what chance did a little French bird have?
     “Madame?” A small woman had suddenly appeared at the door, like a fearful stray cat unsure of what lay around the corner.
      “Yes?” Blanche replied, sounding more confident than she had intended to.
      “The General wishes to inform you, before you rest, that dinner shall be at eight this evening.” The maid nodded several times to herself, before motioning as if she were going to step into the room, but then thinking better of it.
      “Dinner,” Blanche said absently, gently resting her hand on her stomach. “With the General?”
      “Yes, and a few guests from Munich.” The maid paused, quickly glancing outside the room. “Would it please Madame, if I were to guide her to the dining room at that time?”
      “Yes, thank you, what was your name?” The maid did not reply, rather she smiled weakly and then pulled her face away from the door. Unnerved, Blanche allowed her head to fall back on one the many pillows littering the bed, and began to rest her weary eyes.
       As promised, the maid returned three hours later, with an unforgivingly dark dress in hand – a gift for Blanche’s grand entrance into the large dining room. On being guided to her destination, Blanche saw it was already full of male guests and decorated with the heads of numerous stags on the wall. The nameless maid pulled Blanche’s chair out for her, one next to the General, who had not stopped his speech on account of Blanche’s entrance. The gathered party too, collectively, only let their eyes flutter to her for a second, before coming back to rest with the General, enraptured with his words.
       “The French have been good to us, accepted our rule with little rebellion. I wager they’re all like our songbird here. They quickly adapt, recognise their natural leaders, and do all they can to keep us contented. Is that not so?” The General turned to Blanche on completing his impromptu speech, raising his glass and beaming at the woman.
       “Yes, yes everyone here has been very kind,” Blanche sheepishly replied, as if not quiet believing her own words. Like the first read-through of a script, it lacked conviction and polish.
       “Such perfect German!” an officer suddenly declared, causing the room to erupt into virile applause.
       “She can do more than that,” the General joyously exclaimed – as if he were talking about a new toy. “Sing for us Blanche.”
       “In German?” Blanche paused. “Or French, General?”
       “Whichever tongue suits you best,” the General replied, smirking.
       A chilling silence filled the room – until Blanche let out her first note. Piercingly exquisite, it was easily enough to dispel the icy coldness within the space. This came naturally to her, the first natural act she had done since crossing the border into Germany. She chose a comic ditty, from a musical she was in long ago – a French musical. Within minutes she was replaying her beloved character. The mask of Eloise had been adorned, a buxom barmaid singing of the troubles men bring with them to her bar.           
     The Germans loved it, clearly not understanding a word, or how she was covertly insulting each of them in turn. They only saw it as private attention as opposed to a jibe at their weight, womanising or whichever lyric best fit the solider being sung to. When it was the General’s turn, Blanche swayed her hips over towards him and began to subversively serenade him. Leaning in ever so slightly to her ear, he whispered, “Stop, songbird. I speak French.”
       The song immediately ceased, evidently from the uproarious cries of the assembly – it was not a popular decision. Moments later though, vivacious applause began and Blanche thanked her audience in German, before hastily returning to her seat. She glanced quickly at the General, before keeping her eyes downcast for the remainder of the meal.
      Her life at the estate continued much this way for several weeks. Her beauteous melodies at the dinner table seamlessly merged with the self-satisfied recounts of atrocities the military men had performed in the name of the Reich. The caged bird had only found one release from her prison – behind the estate was a vast field full of wildflowers. A profusion of colours always greeted her and the air, so light and clear, always helped her find her voice again. The most stunning aspect was the view. For here, atop this mountain, the world beneath her seemed unimportant – it was just the bird and the sky.
      Blanche always stared out as far as she physically could, was there any point higher in Germany? Below her just meadows, filled with flora, untainted by war and death. No wonder those in charge of the nation sought tranquillity in this place, she had never seen anything more beautiful in her life. It was not a warm day, the breeze was slightly cutting and Blanche was only wearing a flowing dress of pure silk. Still, the cold did not distract her – nothing could. It was just her, the real her and the world – together. No war, no borderlines, how could she be captive when this was her cage?
      There would always be a time though, a schedule that she was bound to keep. Lunch, dinner, drinks with the General, songs for the guests, so much to pull her away from the only place in Germany that made her happy. Day after day, night after night, the men would try to have their way with her and she would repeatedly resist. Every time she would question the General about when she would next be asked to return to Berlin and make another movie, he would simply reply, “I’m not the Führer!”
      There was no escape from any of it, she had taken to having her meals delivered to her room, but still the General’s guests found their way in. Even the safety of her mind had become corrupted with polluted thoughts. The insidious words of the military men painted pictures in her mind – scenes of innocent suffering stopped her from sleeping. How could these men hang such peaceful works of art on their wall, when their lives were painted purely with blood? There was one question which ate away at the soul of the bird, the once innocent dove who had sold her soul to the Nazis and wasted away – been branded a common linnet. How could she atone for what she had done, how could she ever be free?
      The answer had been staring her in the face daily, just beyond the gateway of her window. A beautiful cluster of bell-like flowers – she knew it to be the foxglove. One of her earliest roles was that of a Greek heroine, a desperate figure of tragedy whom after seeing her husband and children slain, took her own life with a mixture of the seeds and leaves of that plant. How much would it take to kill them all? The script never elaborated, the prop department simply handed her a glass vial and she had to pretend to drink it. That would have to do, she would have to embody that loving mother again – she would have to try.
      In the film, they said the mother had died of a broken heart – did the flower stop the heart then? How quickly would it kill each Nazi, how long would she have to escape? Did the dose have to be higher for those who were taller, fatter or younger? Opening her window quite suddenly, Blanche leaned out of it and pulled the entire plant from its firmly rooted home. Using her soup bowl and spoon, she rapidly pulled the plant apart and placed the flowers and leaves into the vessel before her, crushing it as best she could.
      Holding the bowl firmly in hand, she began to make her way to the kitchen. It was just confidence she needed, to place the mask of belonging over her visage – to look as if she was meant to be there. On entering the kitchen, no one paid her any attention, no one enquired as to why she was there. Confidence was the key – she had learned that years ago. It seemed to her that fate was supporting her mission; the soup was being prepared at that very moment – just left to simmer away. That large unforgiving vat of bubbling broth, the varying contents of which she had had to choke down on so many ‘special’ occasions – all while being leered at by her fellow dinner guests. No more.
      Slowly, Blanche sidled up to the unattended concoction and poured her mixture in. She made sure to stir it as quickly as she was able, before either of the two cooks noticed.
       “Ah, it smells wonderful, boys. What is it tonight?” Blanche enquired, her hand dancing above the giant pan, acting as if the smell were pure ambrosia to her nostrils.
       “Pea and carrot, Madame,” one of the chefs replied, not looking up at the actress.
       “Perfect, would you mind telling me where to leave this?” Blanche asked, pointing at her bowl, her face reflecting a child-like innocence.
       “Just leave it there please,” the man said, while lazily indicating an area beside the sink. “In future, Madame, please wait for an attendant to take your dishes. We prefer to clean everything all at once.”
       “Oh, of course, I am so sorry,” Blanche exclaimed, and the cook nodded in response – again, not looking up at their guest. Overjoyed, but fully containing her excitement, Blanche returned to her room. She would leave through the window and hope with all her heart that her impromptu plan would be a success. Even if she would not there to witness the results.
      With the estate becoming a smaller and smaller mark on the horizon, Blanche took a moment to catch her breath. She had left her shoes in her room, choosing bare feet over the high-heels she would always adorn everywhere she went. She was free from that now – she was free from it all. There would be people to replace them, even if her plan worked. She knew that, so she could never go back – someone would find her…
      What would await her even if she could flee back to France? The birds of her homeland would surely sing a different song now and she would never be understood. They would all have seen that film – all have been forced to watch it. Laced with hate, there was no hiding its contents or justifying it. She had collaborated with the enemy and there could be no way to deny it. To them – or to herself. Had she absolved her crime now? Was liberating the world of a table full of wicked men enough of a good act to put the past permanently behind her?
      Staring out over her beloved vantage point – she had made it. The gorgeous meadows still seemingly stitched together for as far as the eye could see. Unaware of any of her actions, good or bad, oblivious to the wider world. It just…was.
      "I am Gabrielle Dufour, I am a good person. Not in fear, not in shame. Let it be beautiful," Blanche whispered to herself in French, allowing her eyes to close and her shoulders to relax. Wordlessly, she repeated the breathing exercises she had learned at the Conservatoire de Paris. 'Breathe in for five, hold for three, breathe out for five.'
      As her eyelids re-opened, the world appeared to her as her first audience. The sky had become the auditorium she so loved and her feet were planted firmly upstage. There, before her, sat the hundreds of expectant, judging eyes that belonged to her peers, 'Will she be good? Will she be bad?' It was finally time, time to step forward and show the world the great actress she was.
       Moving her foot triumphantly toward downstage, there was no ground to meet her. Weightless for the briefest moment, her entire body doubled over and fell effortlessly – beautifully elegantly – down toward the peaceful meadows below. 

Laurence Sullivan is a Writers' Centre Norwich commended writer and has been published online, in magazines like The Menteur, Story Shack and The Legendary, as well as in anthologies such as Darker Times Collection and Inspired By Museum. He became inspired to start writing during his university studies, after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.