The Animal Ball by Stephanie Victoire
The invitation said, “Come one, come all,” but what the hosts of the Barrington Masked Winter Ball meant on that sparkly piece of silver card was, in fact, “You’ve been chosen to attend because of your elegance and prestige.” A beautiful, iridescent, paper snowflake sealed the carefully marked envelopes in which they were sent. Mrs Barrington had spared no cost for this event and she sought to dazzle her guests for one night during the gloomy, dark winter when all had been spent at Christmas, the New Year cheer was over, and people had resumed the dullness of their lives, which seemed to be exacerbated by this cold, bleak season. But for the ball on this night, angels must have heard the request for enchantment because the whitest snow twirled down in little wisps, making the Barrington residence look magical in the twilight. The invitation also specifically stated that all costumes were to be in the theme of animals, and so bears, foxes, birds and all sorts of other creatures glided up the stone path in their flamboyant and decadent gowns and masks towards the promise of drink, dance and other sociable delights, with the added pleasure of a concealed identity.
Mrs Barrington had decided to be a swan and her husband, a cardinal. She had made sure that his scarlet red, velvet suit fit just perfectly before she made the final touches to her own white, du chin satin dress, wings and mask. Mr Barrington gave her a kiss before he put on his feathered, scarlet cape and mask: a small red beak, attached to a blast of black feathers around his eyes, cheeks, chin and chest. Mrs Barrington was pleased with her swan wings, which could have just as easily passed for celestial wings. And that’s how she felt as she swept white powder across her cheekbones: celestial, empowered and not of this world. And through the door to her own ballroom she entered, making her appearance a little later than her guests so that she could hear all at once the gasps and marvels and wonder as to who this beauty was.
Everything was frosted, as if kissed by the Snow Queen herself. Servers sauntered around in white fur and glittered faces, carrying glass platters of champagne glasses that were rimmed with sugar. The six dramatically large and arched windows that ran along the length of the ballroom had their usual heavy, velvet, red curtains replaced with long, white voile, and teardrop glass ornaments hung from the ceiling, winking light across the wooden floor as they gently twirled. There was a tower the size of a tent of macaroons, which were peppermint both in colour and flavour, and the ice sculpture centrepiece sat on a stage of its own and had everyone mesmerised by its craftsmanship. It was a scene from a fairy tale: a castle towered over two misfit lovers who were holding hands, frozen in their dance. And the most intriguing piece of all, which had all the guests wondering how it was carved so intricately, was the bell jar containing a single rose with its perfect petals, thorns and all. The fox tried to touch it and was quickly reprimanded by a server passing by.
There was a cellist and a violinist for entertainment, and, for a bit of fun, a fortune teller dressed as a snow owl sat at her glittered glass table in the corner, reading people’s cards. The badger scratched his head under his puffy black-and-white mask when the owl revealed to him that someone he loved was keeping secrets. The peacock was told that she’d soon come into good fortune and the lynx confirmed that there was in fact a baby on the way. As the champagne soaked its way through people’s hearts, the queue for the fortune-telling snow owl grew longer. “I wonder if she’ll mention my wedding,” the raccoon said to the toad. “I wonder if she’ll put my bad luck to an end,” the boar said low under his breath. In her cloak of black-speckled white feathers and round, moon-like, fluffy mask, the fortune teller looked like a figure of the divine herself; the guardian of heaven’s gates, telling all their fates and dooms: “To the underworld you will go for your indiscretions. You know what I speak of!” Some laughed if off to be hogwash, some tongues were silenced with fret. And although it was the swan that felt she held the power here, the snow owl seemed to be drawing all the guests into her spell.
The cardinal and the swan didn’t dance together at all, but every now and again he’d seek her from across the room. While he was in deep conversation with the rainbow fish whose mask was made of a thousand sequins from iridescent to yellow, then orange then blue, her dress very much the same with a tail to match, the cardinal saw his swan gliding across the ballroom with purpose. She was looking about her, left and right, and then she disappeared through the door that led to the east wing of their home. The only thing in that wing was Mrs Barrington’s studio, where she kept all her wooden sculptures. It was a hobby that turned into obsession some years ago when she discovered she could “trap spirits in wood.” First it was a cat, then a dragon, then a gargoyle, and then a fairy. His wife would sweat over her piece of sugar maple, her fingers calloused and gripping tightly onto her gouge, jaw clenched in focus. It perplexed him as to how a woman who enjoyed the graces and luxuries of a privileged life so much would want to work like a common labourer for hours in solitude. She’d only ever shown her pieces of work to her husband, but she assured him that one day it would be revealed to the world. Maybe she’d still be alive when that happened, maybe not. But she believed she possessed some kind of genius and Mr Barrington, upon seeing what her self-taught skills produced, didn’t ever dispute that. The cardinal thought to follow her and was trying to break off the rainbow fish’s story about her young Dexter who would be starting his career as a cardiologist in the coming autumn, but was interrupted by a server who came to them with a tray of mini white cakes, decorated in edible glitter. “Vanilla frost cake, madam?” The rainbow fish lifted her sequined mask and shoved two cakes into her mouth and the cardinal took that as his cue to excuse himself. He dodged the antlers of the stag, who danced with the Persian cat, spitting out some of her grey mink that flew off from her stole and into his mouth as she swished. The hare was laughing heartily at the ferret’s jokes, doubled over and clutching at his brown cashmere jumper; the cardinal moved him to one side and then bumped into a squirrel who he was sure was his niece, Eleanor. The auburn curls that peeked out from behind her brown velvet ears gave her away. She giggled and apologised for the collision and the cardinal would have stopped to speak with her, delighted to be in the company of family, but he was concerned about the swan and why she had left her ball.
Two hours into the party and the gentle melodies of the string musicians were swapped for the bouncier tunes of a piano. A wolf sat at the shiny, black grand, his grey and black tail hanging out of his tux and over the stool he was sitting on. His mask was made of felt, his furrowed brows of fluffy wool, and his snout was long and bulbous; it was a wonder that he could even see the keys over it. The dance floor thickened with more bodies. Limbs flailed and gowns spun. And in stepped a guest that the snow owl in particular was watching. She was taking a break from dealing cards and giving messages and was now stretching her legs by hovering around the white-chocolate fountain, sipping her champagne. A robin had come in from who knows where, but she smiled at his appearance. He was wearing a brown tweed suit, a white shirt and a stark red scarf. His brown mask had a petite beak, the eyeholes were very small and he wore an oversized brown skullcap, which covered his ears. His hands were covered in brown leather gloves; this guest really didn’t want his identity to be given away. The robin weaved his way through the dance floor, his head very still and his body stiff. He stepped this way and that to avoid the field mouse and the butterfly, who were doing some sort of tango.
Outside, the snowflakes thickened and the sky looked like an enormous pillow fight had taken place; icy, misty feathers flew about in something slightly less than a blizzard. The cardinal had seen it when he made his way down the corridor of portraiture, some paintings collected by his grandparents, some by himself. He was heading in the direction of his swan’s studio when he saw that to his right, the side entrance that led to the orchard, only ever used by Mrs Barrington, was open. The wooden door was trying its best to resist the push from the frosty air and the cardinal thought it strange that she would go out into such weather all by herself. As he approached the door, he thought he saw something on the white ground outside. Even though his small eyeholes gave him very little vision, there was definitely something there that shouldn’t be. He bent down to pick up the ice rose that should have still been in the bell jar in the centrepiece of the ball. The petals had only melted slightly. One or two of the thorns had broken off, and where it had been snapped from the ice sculpture, the end of the stem was sharp and was coloured with blood. This had been a weapon and the user most certainly thought that it would vanish into the bed of snow before it was found. The cardinal’s breath grew shallow, both from panic and from the winter air. He didn’t think his wife could be capable of such things. Who would she have harmed? He needed to confront her before anybody else found out that someone had been hurt He pushed the ice rose into the earth with his shoe, giving it a proper burial, and went back into the wing in order to find the swan.
The door to the studio was locked and his wife had told him she would keep it locked during the party in case of nosy guests, but the cardinal had his own set of keys and quickly took out the bunch from his pocket and unlocked the door. The swan wasn’t in there and everything seemed to look as it usually did when it wasn’t in use: the workbench was clear, the tools were tidied away on the wall rack and the finished sculptures were in their places, all except one. His wife’s latest masterpiece, the life-sized man that she had worked on for months and was so proud of, was missing. The cardinal remembered the day she had finished him. She had walked around him in circles, checking his proportions: his legs were that of a man, his torso was that of a man, his arms, neck and face – everything about him was perfect. He had a relaxed expression but a gaze fixed straight ahead. She’d carved his hair thick and neat and had given him boots, trousers, a shirt and a jacket. “Isn’t he marvellous?” she’d said, beaming, and then tried a few names out loud for her sculpture for fun. “Do you think he looks like an Oscar, or a Paul or a Tristan?” Mr Barrington couldn’t give her any names; he was stunned by what he saw: this wooden man was so lifelike.
But now he was gone and the cardinal couldn’t fathom how. He needed to find his wife and speak to her about it. Just before he was about to close the studio door, something caught his eye on the floor. It was a black feather that must have fallen from someone’s costume. He picked it up, twirled it with his fingers as if inspecting it like this would remind him of who could have been wearing such feathers. And then his eyes fell to the door of the cupboard where the swan kept her varnishes and lacquers; he felt compelled to open it. And when he did, a raven fell onto him. In horror, he threw the heavy body to the floor and jumped back. There was something dark and sticky seeping from the black-feathered cloak. The cardinal bent down to touch it; it was blood. He removed the big, Venetian-style beak and realised that he’d seen this man’s face before, in a photo that his wife had tried to hide from him in the secret compartment of her jewellery box along with a letter that he had hoped he’d never have to mention. Surely this man had never been invited to the ball. This man was his wife’s former lover from many years ago, and now he was dead.
“Dear owl, tell me my fortune,” the robin said, now standing with her by the white-chocolate fountain. The bear was trying to lean across to dip a marshmallow in the fountain’s flow but kept knocking over the ice-skater statue on the table with his large tummy. The snow owl stepped to one side to give him more room, linked her arm with the robin’s, and led him to her table.
“Let’s deal a card, shall we?” The robin sat down and adjusted his shirt and jacket. He could tell she was smiling behind her mask; he caught her blue eyes sparkling. She slowly took her deck of cards and spread them across the table; she paused, looked up at him and then chose one card from the middle and slid it towards herself. Before she could turn it over, the swan was by the robin’s side, tapping on his shoulder.
“You’re supposed to be gone,” the swan whispered, her diamond drop earrings swinging as she spoke.
“Can’t I enjoy the ball, just for a little while?” he teased.
“Oh, let him stay, swan. Everything’s all done now; we can all relax,” the snow owl said and then turned over the card and clapped her hands together with delight at what she saw. “Oh goodness, it’s the tower!” Both the swan and robin looked at the picture on the card. It was of a building collapsing and there was fire burning through each window. “Something is going to come tumbling down.”
A figure of scarlet red flounced through the ballroom towards her – her husband was coming right for her and she told herself to stay calm. What could he know? And then a white rabbit stopped him in his tracks. “Splendid garb! Are you a parrot? Oh no, you can’t be, you’ve got no blue or yellow on you,” the rabbit said, almost sloshing her drink straight out of her glass as she gestured. She was wearing a short-sleeved white dress made of alpaca and wore white silk gloves and white satin heels. Her blonde hair was braided around her head like a crown and her rabbit ears seemed to have been custom made to match her dress. Her white ceramic mask only covered her eyes and was rounded at the cheeks; her lips were painted a bright candyfloss pink.
“I’m a cardinal bird,” the swan’s husband replied, a little too curtly. He then excused himself in a more polite tone and continued to avoid the swirling dancers; a duck, an otter, a zebra and a goldfish were showing off their rather elegant performance of the waltz in pairs. “I wonder if I could speak with you a moment, dear,” he said in her ear, trying not to give away his urgency. She followed him to the quiet, far corner of the ball and stood by the wall of candelabras and paintings reminiscent of Degas. “Could you please explain why there is a dead body in your studio?” The swan was good at faking surprise but not good enough to pass her own husband’s interrogation. He saw her neck vein twitch a little.
“Pardon?” she asked, mocking shock.
“I want this tidied away as much as you do, so please explain it so we can get rid of it all properly.” The swan kept up her charade, saying that she didn’t know what he meant and then asked panicked questions about who could have got into her studio. Only her husband had a key and perhaps someone was trying to frame her. “Someone has been murdered and this someone was not invited to the party. I intend to find out who did it. I’ve got my eyes peeled for anyone looking suspicious,” he told her, scanning her outfit for a speck of blood, sweat or any sign of a struggle, but she was spotless, fresh, and perfectly intact. She didn’t do it herself, but she knew something all right.
“Who was it that was murdered?” she asked. The cardinal said he’d never seen the man before. She played with her diamond earrings and then said, “But, my dear, this is a masked ball. How on earth will we find the killer? Perhaps they’ve left already?” The cardinal muttered something about finding out from the snow owl and then headed back into the crowd. The swan looked over at the fortune teller’s table and saw that the robin had vanished.
“Oh dear! The rose has gone!” the butterfly exclaimed, her glitter mask flickering between pink and purple with her movements. She pointed to the empty bell jar and the panther and the swan, who were within earshot, came over to look.
“Who would take that?” the panther asked and shook his black suede mask; one of his small round ears was slipping from his hair. The swan kept quiet.
“Shame. It was so beautiful. And someone else obviously thought so too,” the toad interjected. He’d been gobbling some cake when he came over to marvel at the ice sculpture.
“Well they can’t keep it for long. It’ll melt,” the panther said before leaving them to find his deer friend. The swan looked about the ball and thought how wonderful everything still looked.
“Do you know what has happened here tonight?” the cardinal asked the snow owl. He had waited his turn in the queue behind the dove and the stag. The dove was told to end her unhappy marriage and the stag was warned to be careful with his money. The wolf at the piano was slowing down the music now; the tunes were becoming soft and romantic. It was a good thing too, the cardinal thought, this ball would soon be over.
“Plenty has happened here tonight!” the snow owl cheered, the feathers on her broad shoulders swayed a little as she moved.
“You know what I mean,” he replied, his body suddenly growing very hot in his velvet suit. He asked her who had been wearing the raven costume.
“I think you know,” she said slowly and shuffled her cards in her pale, milky hands.
“So do you, evidently,” he replied, looking across the room again quickly for the whereabouts of the swan or for anyone who was behaving oddly. The swan was now dancing with the boar. How could she still be enjoying herself so? “Tell me everything, and whatever she’s paying you for this evening, I’ll triple it,” he said low and clear.
“Would you like to hear a story, mister cardinal bird, sir?”
“There once was a raven and a swan, and a long time ago, they fell in love. Now the raven had his own burdens to bear, for he was committed to someone else, let’s call her the rat, shall we? She was a pest for the raven and the swan; they couldn’t fully be together while she was around. The swan wanted the raven all to herself, but the raven was weak and couldn’t leave the rat, but begged the swan to stay and love him until he could find his courage to end the situation. The rat grew suspicious and began searching through the raven’s belongings to find clues of an affair. She rifled through his wardrobe, checked the pockets of his clothes, and then found a napkin, tucked in between a book of poetry – how ironic – and this napkin was imprinted with a lipstick mark. The rat never wore such a shade of red but had seen that very colour on someone’s lips before. She had met the swan at a dinner party that the raven had accompanied her to just before his actions became peculiar and his affections towards her cooled. The rat sniffed out the swan and visited her at her home. The swan offered her a drink before the rat could vocalise her accusations. The rat drank down her drink to calm her nerves, and thus the rat was poisoned. The raven promised that he wouldn’t utter a word about what the swan had done for them to be together and the official report goes that the rat had ended her own life. The body had been carefully moved back to her own home. It wasn’t long before the swan grew bored of this hassle of a relationship; the raven became more needy and his love for her was suffocating. She left him shortly after that and he tried to look for her but she was long gone. A year or two later, the swan met a cardinal. Now, I think you know what happens there. And the swan found a way to calm her guilty conscience by taking up a hobby. The swan to this day, carves figures from wood and her greatest treasure is a life-size and very real looking man. Let’s go back just a touch. The raven had managed to find the swan and sent her a letter of warning: he would expose what she had done to his lover and ruin her. She fretted a little but didn’t panic too much and decided to call upon a snow owl she knows – who will be paid handsomely for this, might I add, and who has magical powers beyond your wildest dreams. The swan asked her to cast a very unique and glorious spell. The swan sent a letter to the raven, which included politely that she’d like to talk with him and that perhaps she had made a mistake in leaving him. She said she’d missed him and would he come to her winter masked ball. It would be perfect for their discretion. She’d wear all white and he must wear all black and acknowledge her when he arrived. Here’s the part that’s really interesting: the swan hasn’t missed him at all. In fact, she’s been wanting to get rid of him and get rid of everything he knows. So the spell the snow owl can cast is very special, as I say. It can make inanimate objects animate. Perfect for a wooden man to turn into human for a night – or rather a robin – dispose of the raven, and then be back in his wooden, lifeless form again before anyone could know. And if anyone did happen to catch the robin in the act, who would believe them when they told the authorities that the killer was the sculpture?”
It was just past one in the morning when a few guests started to leave the ball and stagger their way out into the cold, snowy night to wait for their drivers, who would have some difficulty coming and going in this weather. The bear was holding onto the Persian cat, whose legs couldn’t find their coordination. Her mink stole was slipping off her shoulders, and her grey cat mask was cocked to one side. The panther was waiting for the deer to say her goodbyes and join him by the front door; the rainbow fish was finishing off the last of the cakes on the table, as she hated to think that they’d go to waste. The goldfish and the zebra were still swaying on the dance floor; the sleepy song the wolf was playing was causing them to doze off on each other’s shoulders. The squirrel didn’t want her conversation to end with the charming badger, who felt compelled to talk about his reading with the fortune-teller, both of them sat on silver chairs facing one another in deep discussion. And even though the guests were fading, the sparkles and glitter of the ballroom were not; the ice sculpture to everyone’s surprise showed no signs of melting. It was still solid and beautiful, but all agreed that it was nevertheless a great shame that the rose had been stolen. The snow owl began packing up her cards into her wooden box, ready to see the night end. The swan went over to the wolf and told him that this song was to be the last and the cardinal started thanking the guests and informed them that the ball was coming to an end. “We’ve had a lovely evening, Mr Barrington, thank you,” most of them said, now knowing who he was. The cardinal disappeared before the wolf received his payment from the lady of the house and went on his way. The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.
“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.
“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.
“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”
She found him waiting in her studio, standing by the window with his mask gone, his scarlet suit looking more like burgundy in the gloomy light. “They all had a wonderful time, didn’t they, darling?” he said to her. She removed her mask and went to take off her wings also, but then she thought that they’d give her strength in this situation somehow so kept them on.
“Yes, they did.” She stepped a little closer and looked at her wooden man, who was back in his place where he should be. Her husband met her glance for a moment and then turned back to the window and giggled at the Persian cat drunkenly playing with the snow. Some jokes and cackles came from those still waiting for their cars to arrive. The snow was easing up now. It would settle; all would be calm soon.
“The snow owl said you’ve taken care of her payment.” The swan didn’t know the tone with which she should be speaking and so it was coming out a little strangled.
“Yes, I’ve written her a cheque and have given her a very attractive sum for the revelations she’s given me this evening.” The cardinal walked towards his swan, looked at her face for a moment and tried to remember when it was pure. Had it ever been? Did he just think he had seen it before? He watched her eyes flicker over to the cupboard where the raven was, probably wondering if her husband had disposed of it for her. The cardinal brushed one of her wings with his shoulder as he walked past and headed for the door behind her. She turned to face him.
“I’m just going to let you sit in here for a while and think about what it is your witch friend may have told me. Night night, dear.” The cardinal struck a match from the box he’d pulled out of his pocket and threw it at the wooden man that was stood next to his wife; it instantly caught fire. The swan screamed at the sight of her masterpiece disintegrating in the flames. “Oh, and I spilled some lacquer all over your studio by accident earlier on. Sorry about that.” And with those last words to his wife, he left the room, shut the studio door and locked it. He walked away, hearing her scream and bang her fists on the inside of the door.
Together, the snow owl and the cardinal watched the Barrington residence get eaten by the fire room by room, a bright orange glow making its way down the halls, to the central staircase, across the ballroom where they had all just been dancing the night away, and then to the kitchen. And up it would go until the whole building collapsed. The last of the guests’ cars had pulled out of the drive before anyone noticed the smoke. “What will you do, Mr Barrington?” The snow owl asked him, now dressed in a white fur, much like the ones the servers had been wearing.
“A fresh start, I think. I’m rather happy to let it all go. It’s all been tainted with secrets and murder.” The cardinal slipped into a reverie for a moment, of days passed that he had thought to be true happiness but had actually been lies. A loud noise broke him out of it then – something popped from the upstairs window, third from the right, sending balls of fire flying into the cold air. The snow owl’s eyes widened at the display. “You’d better go home and get warm,” the cardinal said, looking up at the indigo sky, his eyes squinting from the snowflakes falling. “The snow is starting up again.”
© Stephanie Victoire 2016
Stephanie Victoire was born in London to a Mauritian family. In 2010 she graduated with a BA in Creative Writing from London Metropolitan University. In 2014 Stephanie completed her collection of fairy and folk tales entitled The Other World, It Whispers whilst on the The Almasi League writers’ programme. Two of these stories were separately published in 2015. Stephanie lives in London and is currently working on a novel, The Heart Note.