The Mask Collectors by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer
The representations of thovil and hooniyam in this novel are informed by many, sometimes conflicting, anecdotal accounts, as well as the writings of the anthropologists Nandadeva Wijesekera and Bruce Kapferer. The practice of hooniyam is often shrouded in secrecy, and it encompasses many types of rituals that are intended to cause harm to a selected victim. Yak thovil are healing ceremonies performed to exorcise demons believed to be responsible for causing illness and other unfortunate circumstances. In yak thovil, exorcists wear masks representing particular demons, which are summoned and then banished through symbolic performances. Thovil are enormously elaborate events that include drama, dance, comedy, impersonation, incantation, and music. Costumes, masks, and many symbolic structures and objects are used, which vary according to the specific purpose of the ritual. I have taken liberties in describing these practices, in order to make them more digestible and comprehensible to the general reader, and to serve the purposes of my story. My descriptions in this novel cannot hope to do justice to the complicated cosmology in which the practices are embedded, or the rich historical, social, and religio-spiritual contexts in which they occur. I refer readers interested in learning more to Deities and Demons, Magic and Masks by Nandadeva Wijesekera, and A Celebration of Demons and The Feast of the Sorcerer by Bruce Kapferer.
By late afternoon, all the searchers had returned to the camp pavilion. Everyone knew that Angie Osborne’s body had been found, but still no one knew how she had died.
Lunch seemed so long ago, Duncan thought. The food had all been put away. The two long folding tables in the pavilion were bare except for a desolate tin vase of daffodils near a handwritten cardboard sign that said Sorry, no finger bowls! Use tap at back of pavilion. The yellow banner emblazoned with the words HAPPY 23RD REUNION TO THE KANDY INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL CLASS OF 1993! looked incongruously bright above the tables.
Duncan put an arm around Grace’s shoulders, for the familiarity of it. Her body stiffened against his. “Mo and Suki got to her first,” Duncan said, turning away from the flashing lights of the police vehicles beyond the pavilion. “I was right behind them.” He was thankful for the sturdiness of the picnic table on which he was perched. He had been feeling shaky since the discovery of the body. Everything felt dreamlike.
Grace shrugged off his arm and turned to face him. “Are you sure about the blood?” she said, gripping his hand. Her fingers were cold.
“Positive. I looked. We all looked.”
“Poor Mo. Look how hard it’s hit him,” Grace said.
At the time they’d heard the scream, only ghostly blurs of figures and tables had been visible outside the small pavilion, but now the fog, which had been unseasonable for May in New Jersey, had completely dissipated. Duncan looked over to where two of Grace’s old schoolmates were hunched at another picnic table: Mo, with his head in his hands, and Suki, saying something into Mo’s ear.
“He was much worse before. He kept trying to revive her, even though it was obvious she was gone. Suki and I had to pull him off.” Duncan shuddered as the sound of Mo’s sobbing came back to him.
“I just can’t believe it,” Grace said, her knuckles pressed against her lip. Her eyeliner was smudged, accentuating the dark sheen of her cheeks. “How could she die just like that? Someone our age?”
Duncan shook his head, running over the scene in his mind’s eye. He was finding it difficult to get over the shock of seeing Angie lying there in the woods. Her arms had been flung wide, and her plaid shirt had been rucked up on one side, exposing a tanned, muscular portion of her belly. The skin under her navel had been marked with a prominent white scar that disappeared into the waistband of her jeans. It had been the flies that had tipped him off. There’d been two small clusters of them settled too close to her eyes. When Mo and Suki rushed forward, the flies had ascended in a buzzing mass and zipped away. Angie’s eyes, blue and empty, had been fixed on the dead leaves scattered by her head.
“I don’t know. She looked almost like she was resting. The only weird thing was . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe I imagined it. Or exaggerated it in my mind. That happens with stress.” Eyewitness accounts were frail. Didn’t witnesses—to bank robberies and car accidents—often misremember what they’d seen? They would think they’d seen someone pointing a gun, or a car speeding, when in fact those things had not really happened. The mind played tricks in traumatic situations.
“Well, her tongue,” Duncan said. He ran his fingers over the table surface, feeling the crevices in the weatherworn wood. “When I got there, behind those two, I thought I saw her tongue sticking way out of her mouth.”
“Maybe that’s normal,” Grace said.
Duncan took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. They felt gritty, from fatigue maybe. “I don’t know. Her head was turned sideways like this,” he said, demonstrating the angle. “Her mouth was open. I could have sworn her tongue was lying on the ground. It looked too long to be real. Like a long slice of pink banana.” He rubbed again, wishing the grittiness would subside. He wanted to lie down somewhere and close his eyes. “But we were all so emotional. And then after Mo tried reviving her, shaking her and pulling her up, you couldn’t see the tongue quite as much.” He wished the image of the tongue wouldn’t keep coming back to him. He had only ever seen a tongue that long in a woman who was supposedly possessed, in Sri Lanka. That had been years ago, during an exorcism ceremony he’d been watching.
He saw Grace’s anxious expression and realized how insensitive he was being, going on about the death scene. They may not have been close, but Angie had still been her classmate.
“Are you sure she wasn’t shot?” Grace said.
“Then where was the blood? And anyway, I don’t know if the shots had anything to do with her. Remember how close they sounded, over that way? That’s where we all went initially. We stayed on the trail. That’s why it took so long to find her. She was farther off, due north, and off the trail.” Suki, Mo, and Duncan had trudged along a creeping stream for several hundred yards. They had crossed a rickety wooden bridge before coming to the fallen tree beyond which they’d found Angie, on a patch of flattened grass that was still brown from the harsh winter.
“But why the shots—?” Grace started to say, when a man appeared beside them. He was wearing a navy-blue suit and a gray tie, but Duncan knew he was a policeman because of the way he had been hobnobbing with the uniformed officers.
The officer was easily six or seven inches taller than Duncan, who, being five feet eleven, was not particularly short. He bent his head toward Duncan, the gesture increasing the slight stoop of his shoulders. “You are Duncan McCloud?” he said. His eyes drooped downward a little at the corners, which gave him a melancholy air. His mouth was wide, and a prominent soul patch nestled above his chin, as if to compensate for the close crop of the blond hair on his head. His voice was deferential, and so soft that Duncan had to lean toward him to hear what he was saying. His breath, faintly minty, wafted across Duncan’s cheek.
“Yes,” Duncan said, sliding off the table.
“Mortensen,” the officer said, reaching out his hand to shake theirs. “Detective Washington Mortensen. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was you who found Ms. Osborne?” he said to Duncan. He slipped a pen and a small spiral-bound notebook out of his jacket pocket. His hands, square palmed and long fingered, dwarfed the notebook further.
“Along with two others. Mo and Suki,” Duncan said, looking around for them.
“Mohammed Hashim and Itsuki Watanabe,” Grace said, her bulky silver watch slipping halfway down to her elbow as she pointed. “They’re over there, by the keg.” Duncan, looking over, saw that Mo and Suki had joined a group of the Kandyans who were huddled by the side of the pavilion in two tight circles, clutching paper cups. Mo had a cup as well. The guy was a teetotaler. An orthodox Muslim. Had grief made him revert to his high school ways?
“I just have a few questions, if I may,” Mortensen said, his eyes cast down at his pad. “What time would you say it was when you found Ms. Osborne?”
Duncan rubbed his head, trying to remember. The chronology of the afternoon was oddly blurred in his mind. They’d tramped around in the foggy woods for God knew how long, barely able to see where they were treading until they got to higher ground. “Not sure about that. The last time I looked at my watch was at 4:05. We were searching for twenty, thirty minutes after that. Maybe four thirty or so?”
Mortensen wrote on his pad in tiny letters that looked impossible to read, his jaw moving, apparently chewing gum. “I don’t want to take too much of your time, Mr. McCloud. But perhaps you could tell me about what exactly occurred.” He turned the pages of his pad, read something on it, and turned to a blank page. “What did you notice about Ms. Osborne when you came upon her?” he said, his eyes still downcast.
“When I first saw her, I thought she was asleep. She was on her back with her head turned sideways. But then I saw her mouth and eyes were open. Her tongue was hanging out.” Duncan wondered if he might be making too much of what he thought he’d seen. But every time he thought back to the moment they’d found Angie, the tongue was what jumped to mind. Almost everything else seemed hazy now.
“Did you see a gun, Mr. McCloud?”
“No, no gun,” Duncan said. After his initial frenzied efforts to revive Angie, Mo had been too distraught to do more than sit by her body, crying, and Suki had just stood there in shock. Only Duncan had scanned the ground for anything unusual among the layers of twigs and decaying leaves. “We all heard shots earlier, but that was before two, maybe around one thirty. And they seemed closer than where she was. Somewhere around there.” He pointed toward the northwest.