How to Break a Mask


"You're… You're what?" Shizuka asks hoarsely, gaping at him.

The afternoon sunlight ripples through the mullioned windows, the wavy lines hitting Kinzo's face. "I'm enlisting," he repeats himself simply.

"But—"

"I've made my decision. I will not discuss it any further."

-0-0-0-

She watches him leave, dressed in the simple uniform of a soldier, and not once does Kinzo ever turn back and look at her, or their children. He walks down the road, head held high and step swift, and he does not speak, nor does he look back.

Just like he had said he wouldn't.

Krauss, Eva and Rudolf all stand at her side, and where Shizuka droops the further he goes, they seem to brighten. Their shoulders straighten and some light returns to their dull, wary eyes, as though their father was an evil spirit who siphoned away all their energy when he was near them, and takes his malign influence with him as he goes. And maybe he was; a room certainly seemed to grow gloomy, darker, and oppressively quiet whenever Kinzo was in it.

But even if Kinzo never brought happiness to the house in which he lived, Shizuka knows better than her children that if Kinzo is leaving to go off to fight a desperate war, it's not a good thing.

"We should go back inside," she says to them, eyes skimming over all of their heads, once Kinzo has finally disappeared from sight. The wind catches in her hair and her heart feels as though some cruel hand has reached inside to hold it tight, keeping it from beating, but her voice is level, emotionless. "It's cold out here. Come along, children."

-0-0-0-

He has left the house empty and smaller than what it was when he still lived there, even if Kinzo's presence only served to inject something akin to a funereal pall into the atmosphere. The master of the house is gone—has been for two weeks. He leaves evidence of his presence in the clothes hanging up in the wardrobe, in empty wine bottles stashed in hidden corners in the library, in the now-barren rose bushes that sigh when strong winds whistle through their branches.

Shizuka had not thought the house would seem so different with Kinzo gone. He had been a ghost in his own home, seeming more akin to an apparition floating down the halls than the master of the house, but still, somehow, all here feels… diminished without Kinzo. He has come to be such a fixture that his absence is bizarre.

Still, the servants no longer lower their voices when they talk, and the children play in the halls without fear of being harshly scolded by their father.

The elders have fled, escaping the cities and the specter of war for places where they think they will be safe. The servants may speak more openly now, but they still cup their hands around their mouths when they think their mistress might be near. The children do not even try to hide their relief that their father has gone to a place where he can't lambaste them for bad behavior or poor grades or for speaking too loudly when he's hung-over.

Shizuka, however, does not flee. Nor does she gossip. Nor does she feel any emotion resembling relief. All she can do is sit, and wait, and worry.

Kinzo must have been looking for a way to die after all, because when he first saw an opening to join the army, he jumped on it. All the propaganda in the world can not hide the fact that the war is going badly for Japan, that defeat is inevitable, and that when defeat comes, the country will suffer. Shizuka doesn't even allow Krauss, Eva or Rudolf to play outside the Ushiromiya grounds anymore, for fear of Allied bombs; she's heard reports of fire bombings in Tokyo and doesn't like to think of what would happen to the children if they weren't able to get back in the house and down into the cellars in time.

As it is, the life of a soldier is currently even more dangerous than that of a civilian. Kinzo must know that, and yet he chose to join the army once it became clear that the elders no longer had any vested interest in keeping him alive. He must know that his chances of dying are very good indeed (a safe bet for all gamblers), and yet he's gone off to serve a country he has little fondness for. Given that Kinzo has never possessed any more inclination towards homicidal urges than he has towards patriotism and likely does not have any sort of inner bloodlust he's looking to sate by killing enemy soldiers, it's likely that he is looking for a worthy death.

Though Kinzo may wish for death and Shizuka knows that it is her place as a wife to wish her husband well in all his endeavors, she prays that death will not find him.

It does not matter what Kinzo-san wants, if what he wishes for is death. He is the head of the Ushiromiya family, which flounders in debt and whose current heir is a young boy. It is his duty to stay alive until such time as Krauss is old enough and experienced enough to take over the headship. It is his duty to stay alive long enough to recoup our losses, to make up the wealth that was stolen away.

He is the father of three children. If he has any care in his heart for them, any at all, he ought to count them as a reason to stay alive. He ought to want to see them grow up, and have children of their own.

He is my husband. I—

Shizuka squeezes her eyes shut and runs her hand over the surface of the book held in her lap. "Don't…" she whispers. "Don't."

Shizuka distracts herself with the history of the book she holds, grateful to have something, anything, to divert her from thoughts of Kinzo out in some far field, maybe facing death at that very moment.

Eventually, she had grown impatient with the fact that the only books available were so jealously guarded by her husband, and that they weren't even in a language she could read. True, the children have books, books written in Japanese, but they are children's books, written for children, not adults.

Even Eva, whose tastes in literature slant more mature than her brothers', still reads books too juvenile for her mother to truly enjoy them. What's more, she's nearly as jealous a warden of books as her father; no one is allowed to remove books from Eva's collection without her permission, and God help you if you haven't returned a borrowed book by the time you said you would, or if you return it damaged. Rudolf found that out, to his dismay (and great physical pain), when he did both, returning a book a week late and with the front cover barely clinging to the spine. Eva's response was swift and brutal; Rudolf found himself down two baby teeth after his mouth's encounter with his sister's fist. Eva was confined to her room (only allowed out for sanitary reasons and school) for a week, and Rudolf will likely never abuse his sister's belongings again.

One day Shizuka came into a bit of spending money, and took Krauss and Eva (Rudolf did not want to go, and was far more content with his jacks than with a book, thank you very much) to the local bookstore. They bought a couple of books for themselves, and with the rest of the money, Shizuka did the same. She currently has about a dozen books she calls her own, and has read them all at least twice.

It's been… It's been enjoyable, having books she can actually read. Now there's something to occupy her day other than oversee the servants and wander about the grounds below. The books have become an oasis in an otherwise gray life, but…

But, all things considered, Shizuka finds that this does nothing to take her mind off of her endangered husband. Nothing at all.

I can not panic, she tells herself, depositing her book on the nearest table and going to stand by the window. Rudolf is down outside, playing tag with a child who—for once—is actually socially acceptable for him to be associating with. I can not lose my composure and weep like one of the working women down in the mills. In Kinzo-san's absence I am the head of the house; I lead the servants and all those who depend upon the Ushiromiya group. I must maintain all strength. I can not falter.

Smoothing down her skirts, Shizuka leaves the room. She's dawdled too long here; she has work to do.

-0-0-0-

It's during one of those freak thunderstorms that rolls suddenly off from the sea that Shizuka starts to crack, just a little bit.

The lights have gone out and, in the face of the ferocious winds and the abiding fear of the Allies attacking under the cover of foul weather and darkness, she's gathered the children on the ground floor, the better to flee to the cellar if they need to.

None of them are particularly impressed with their mother's worrying. Rudolf is rubbing at his eyes and yawning, trying as hard as he can to fall asleep in an armchair, despite all injunctions not to. Eva fiddles with the hem of her long, white nightgown, a scowl marring her otherwise pretty features. Krauss alone speaks.

"It's just a storm. Airplanes can't fly in these conditions, let alone well enough to drop bombs over the city. I don't see why we shouldn't just go back to bed."

Shizuka snaps at him to be quiet, but in that moment he looks so like his father at his most irritable—out of all the children, Krauss resembles his father the most—that it gives her pause, and leaves her to sit in a chair and stare out at the wild, stormy night, wondering.

Kinzo and his masks. They gave her such cause for frustration, such cause for grief.

She remembers how it was—he would be almost totally apathetic, only allowing irritation or a faint, vague contentment to seep through, except when he would fly into a sudden rage, demanding to be left alone and snarling at anyone who defied those orders. Then, that rage would vanish like dew off a leaf on a hot summer's day, and he would settle back to his cold, distant apathy, retreating behind the shield provided by his books and his position of power, nominal or not, over all those who crossed his path.

They have been married for more than ten years now, and in all that time, Kinzo never warmed toward her. He never dropped the mask of anger, the mask of apathy, the mask of distant authority that he did not want, nor the grim, dull malaise of a man who wanted nothing more to die and be released from the "shackles" of his life. He never came to consider her someone worth respect, or confiding in, or seeking comfort from, or trusting. His opinion of his wife, simply, has remained that she is someone to ignore unless paying attention to her is the only option possible.

He never, in all those years of marriage, in having three children and a wife that he should have been willing to confide in, never lost that malaise, never overcame that feeling that he would be better off dead, that his life was so worthless that having a family wasn't enough to tether him to the mortal plane. He always kept those masks, and never once willingly took them down, not to his children, and not to his wife. He was never interested in being a father, never interested in being a husband.

But when Shizuka sees in her mind's eye the image of him wandering into the path of a stray bullet, she can't help but…

Oh God, I…

It's funny… It's funny, but it's suddenly gotten so hard to breathe. Her throat feels so hard and hot, like there's a knot rising up her neck.

"Mother?"

Krauss's scowl vanishes, to be replaced by a look of concern. Apparently Shizuka wasn't able to completely banish the sudden swell from her face. "Mother, is something wrong?" When she doesn't answer, he looks to the window, at the rain being blown by the wind to batter the glass, and misinterprets what he sees. "Mother, it really is just a storm. It'll have blown over by morning."

After a moment longer of abstracted staring, Shizuka turns to her eldest son, a weak smile wavering on her lips. "I know. Why don't you three just get some sleep after all? I'll wake you if I think we need to go to the cellar."

-0-0-0-

She walks into her bedroom one day and finds that everything reminds her of him. The bed hangings, the pale, lacy curtains on the window, the chair by the vanity that has marks on it from where Kinzo would brace his feet when he went to put on his shoes (With, of course, no respect for the fact that he shouldn't even be wearing those sorts of shoes in the house, let alone in the bedroom). Everything, from sheets to the pendulum clock on the wall, reminds her of Kinzo, even when it shouldn't.

Rudolf asked her when he was coming home yesterday. Oh, he didn't do it in a "When's Daddy coming back? I wanna see him." sort of voice. He did it in a "Please don't say 'soon'" sort of voice, the same as Krauss or Eva would have done, if they had ever found reason to ask. They don't miss their father. And to be horribly honest, Kinzo has never given them a reason to miss him. They're too young to really understand that their fortunes hang precariously in the balance, that if Kinzo doesn't come home, they're as good as ruined. They are old enough, however, to recognize the differences between the way their father treats them and the way the fathers of their classmates treat their children. They're old enough to be relieved to see the back of him.

Shizuka finds, though, that with each passing day that Kinzo is gone and she hears nothing from him, her anxiety only grows greater.

She has nightmares about him dying (Dead in some field, lying spread-eagle on his back, blood spilling from dark holes and his lifeless gray eyes staring up at a pitiless sun). No matter how much she tells herself that all will be well, no matter how often she sends prayers up to God, Shizuka still finds the image of Kinzo dead burned on the inside of her eyelids.

Just as often she finds herself having nightmares about what might happen to her and the children if Kinzo dies. She can see it so clearly—them all out on the streets, their fine clothes turned to rags and hunger burrowing in their eyes and their cheeks. Her sons would be thieves, she and her daughter whores, and they would end their days in prison or out on the streets, perhaps stabbed in some dark alley.

I can't face that. I can't even begin to imagine living that sort of life. To have come so dizzyingly high, and then to hit the ground again so abruptly… I think the fall itself would kill me.

-0-0-0-

A week later, Shizuka finds herself in the roes garden, surrounded by all the rose bushes Kinzo had insisted be planted, the flowers in full bloom for the humid early June.

With each breath she takes as she wanders the path, the air seems to grow closer, thicker, more difficult to breathe. The humidity makes it feel as though there are invisible hands pressing all over her chest and neck. The thick, heady perfume of the roses, cloying and almost sickly, invades her nostrils and sticks to the roof of her mouth. The heat is overwhelming, pressing down on her head and shoulders. Every inch of skin feels as though it will burst into fire with smoke smelling of roses, and—

She finds herself on her knees, her small hands cupping her face as she weeps. She might come up with her skirt encrusted with dirt, she might set the servants to whispering "she's gone mad; look at her dress, look at her face", but she doesn't care. Her shoulders are beset by tremors, her stomach upended by the tears trickling down her throat, and she doesn't care if the whole world deems her mad for such a display.

Shizuka isn't even sure why she's crying. She could be crying for her children, for her husband, for her country, for all the men dying, or simply for herself. Maybe she cries for them all, for this mad world that's been set ablaze.

But for now, all she can think about is the roses.

Kinzo had loved the roses—as much as he's capable of loving anything. And now, she has no way of knowing whether he'll ever see them again.

-0-0-0-

She wilts and withers the way delicate spring flowers do under the heat of a pitiless midsummer sun, leaves crumpling, smooth, pink petals shriveling and turning a sickly shade of brown as if to deliberately mock beauty in all its ugly, decaying glory.

Food is as ash in her mouth and makes her stomach roil; at least twice Shizuka has been sick off of a light meal though there was nothing wrong with the food. Sleep pounds her with horrors, so her nights are filled with wakefulness instead, and there is no amount of makeup that can hide the purplish circles beneath her eyes and the way her skin starts to stretch tightly over her cheekbones. She finds herself snapping at the servants over the most minor of mistakes. Her children avoid her, and she sees herself reflected as a ghost in their eyes.

It's like she's assimilated her husband's spirit, and she's drowning in whatever malaise gnawed at the edge of his soul when he was still here. Shizuka wonders for one moment, morbid and grimacing, if she'll feel the urge to jump from a high place or dive beneath the surface of her bathtub and never come back up.

She remembers Kinzo's listless, apathetic face, the way he could barely force any inflection into his voice when he wasn't in a rage. This world is nothing more than a cage—Shizuka knows that, and Kinzo did as well. Maybe that was why he never put passion into anything. Because he knew that it did not matter, that he had no power though he wore fine clothes and the title of "family head." Because he knew that no matter what he did, he would always be powerless, and life would go on the same way it always did. The same food, the same books, the same bad alcohol.

Maybe he'll find death on a battlefield, and he'll then be free, but Shizuka will still be caged even if Kinzo is dead. As terrified as she is of the thought of losing him, she finds she resents him for that. She resents him, because she knows he'll seek his freedom without a second thought, but not think to leave the door open for her to do the same.

Then, once he's gone, the gilded cage will become a cage whose bars are made of hunger and ruin.

She dreads it every day.

-0-0-0-

And it's amazing how one simple thing can make the whole world seem as though a gray veil has been lifted and the sun is shining again.

Shizuka clutches the letter to her chest. It's short and stilted, without a trace of emotion, but it's a sign that he's still alive, that he hasn't been killed on the battlefield, and the paper curls and crumples under the bite of her fingernails.

He'll be home soon, sometime in the coming weeks.

There's a swelling in her chest, and Shizuka finds herself smiling for the first time in what seems an eternity. She'd almost forgotten what it felt like to smile.

-0-0-0-

Kinzo arrives home to a city in ruin. The Allies bombed the city in August; the mansion was damaged in the attack and as a result Shizuka and the children have been forced to take up residence in the guesthouse. Tokyo has been devastated by fire bombing, Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the horrors of the atomic bomb. Japan has signed the papers of surrender and is now under the occupation of the Allies. The ground she stands on now is that of a country in ruin.

But for the moment, Shizuka finds she doesn't care about any of that. She's waiting at the gate for him to come, and she doesn't think she would care if the whole world was burning.

Even if Kinzo cares nothing for her or their children, she's glad to have him back. The future no longer seems quite so bleak with him home, alive, no matter what his attitude towards life or her. At least now the children have some chance of a safe, comfortable future, and Shizuka, Shizuka just wants to see his face.

Where is he? He was supposed to be here half an hour ago; what's taking so long?

Then, as if her eyes have alit on some reverse mirage, hazy at a distance but growing more solid with each step closer, she spots him.

There's Kinzo, still in that uniform, with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and the dust of the road smeared on his boots. For one utterly insane moment, Shizuka finds herself nearly overwhelmed by the urge to go running up and hug him and kiss him and all the things she's seen the working class women do when their husbands returned from war.

But no. Shizuka plants her feet on the ground and does not go running when she catches sight of her husband. It's not proper for a woman of her station to engage in such low-class frivolity, not in public, where anyone could see her. All fine and well for one of the working-class women to take leave of their dignity when they see their husbands for the first time in months, or even years, but for her to indulge in such an undignified display would be unacceptable.

She is… very happy to see him, though, enough so that it's all she can do to keep her demure, proper smile from breaking into a grin.

As Kinzo nears, Shizuka finds herself staring. He… He seems so different.

Kinzo has not sustained any injuries of war, it looks like. He has no scars, he's not lost any fingers or an eye. He doesn't have any new wrinkles or lines around his mouth. He's still clean-shaven, even. But there's something different.

It's his face. He looks lighter, happier, not like that cold, brooding man who would sit in the library for days on end and drink himself to the edge of oblivion. Oh, true, he's not smiling, not bearing even the hint of a smile, but the heaviness is gone from his shoulders. He walks with a certain spring in his step, the leaden quality of his gait gone.

"It's…" Kinzo frowns, and narrows his eyes, face creasing as though the words are painful for him "…it's nice to see you again," he says, with badly disguised reluctance.

He doesn't greet her with any more warmth than she's used to—still the same distant, impatient, "let's get this over with" sort of air about him—but Shizuka still smiles all the same.

"I'm pleased to see you well," she responds, with considerably more warmth.

Oh, even if he's just the same towards her, Shizuka can't help but smile, can't help but feel happier than she has in months.

From his changed demeanor, from the way he smiles at the roses (from the way he smiles at all) the appearance of color in his cheeks and light in his eyes, it seems as though Kinzo has found some worth to life after all. Shizuka can only assume that being so close to death must have changed his mind.