When I was young I made masks

Once I got a book on crafts from the library. Its pages creamy, thick, I devoured it. (It devoured me.) That was the first time I made a mask, recently six, cocooned in anticipation for autumn, crunch of October frost already beneath my feet. Messy hands. My family would move down South from our tiny northern harbor town less than a year later. Thick swaths of paper, sticky flour paste from the recipe in the book covered our chipped kitchen table.

This is what came out of that process:  stringy yarn hair; a knobby witch nose; skin phosphorescent green. I put on the mask, alongside a tattered grey sheet, crepe paper seaweed, thick rope around my waist; stepped into the chill.

“I’m a sailor,” I told parents on doorsteps, “but I’m a drowned one.”

*           *           *

meaning: the water flowing over my head

meaning: my hands always covered in goop, tangled in snaky vines, special effect rot

At school, men pushed me against lockers, shoved fingers in hair, face, worse. In children’s books, masks led to witchcraft led to ruin, but my own life already felt out of my control. A sister, died before I was born, pictures everywhere in the house, in whose shadow I grew up. The hands of others. An uneasy collapse. In Goosebumps: The Haunted Mask, Carly Beth grows intoxicated by the monster’s face she slides onto her own, her soft flesh hidden by nightmare skin, her body taken over by the mask.

(Hiding made sense to me because of the practice I already had.)

(I always felt ragged with ocean water, seeping, buried in muck.)

I make dozens of masks.

(the murky depth of the sea a disguise itself)

*           *           *

What goes into the masks: flour        water     

tattered strips of newspaper     painter’s

tape       acrylics          makeup

           (whatever I could find)

The house we ended up in in North Carolina was in the basin of a swamp, tumescent heat, thick water, worms. Our walls covered in photos: black and white snaps of younger me, family friends, my sister (dead). Our doorways warped out of shape in the summer heat. The evenings quiet.

While I stumbled onto masks, my first craft, in the North, it was here it really set in: a witchcraft looped and bound by water. I would wander down to the hurricane-trashed shore, sit for an hour or two, wander back to our home and pick up a newspaper. Filled the bowl with flour, ran the sink taps. I can’t imagine what my parents thought. The craft rooted me.

*           *           *

These are some of the masks I make in North Carolina:

            another sailor              another sailor              a swamp creature                  a skeleton

                        (an attempted version of my father, face split into an unwieldy, ghost grin)

            a werewolf        a scarecrow      a vampire              a self-portrait, ragged pink skin,

                                                                flop of hair, slashed red lips


The masks skewed towards masculine because that was what I was taught to be afraid of: the clutch of a family member’s hand against my head, the feeling of my body being touched suddenly by a friend, the things that left bruises and the things that didn’t. Everything I made, whether I meant it or not, was horrifying.

The coldness of winters up North, the heat and swamp bugs crawling over everything. Cockroaches, fireflies, maggots feeding on the paste in our garbage

I finished the masks, wore them once or twice for a Halloween costume, nailed them to my bedroom wall afterward. Or even more frequently: tossed them in a box, shoved the box in the closet, closed the door. Never looked at them again.

(Why do I erase the friendships I had then? The libraries I tended myself to, unexpected sunsets, hand-holding. Sweat pouring off bodies. I had friends. I didn’t have many friends. The friends I had all faggots. It took me so long to trust anything)

*           *           *

I like masks because of the way papier-mache hardens, moving from a drowned sog to something tight, twisted, a spine. A comportment.

A story: the last mask I made in high school, a skeleton or clown face I hammered on top of a scarecrow.  Maybe, in its bright rouge, a move towards a more femme craftwork—although the rain smudged the face within half a month. Maybe, by putting the mask outside of my house instead of in, I was making myself less haunted.

But still: the flour paste making the features a blur, as though through thick, distorted glass. The figure standing alone. That autumn was unexpectedly warm, the leaves didn’t even fall until December.

*           *           *


*           *           *

I had friends outside of what I made with my hands. Even then, even in high school, I was already building a bolder body. Drawn towards craft as a type of protection.

I don’t know why I stopped making masks, but I did. I didn’t know there was even a change until months later. I spent whole afternoons in the deep mud of the swamp. When I was touched, I saw it coming. When I felt grief, I could talk. I was finding other strengths and learning to love the lushness of my land.

Soon I would move away, settle in first the mountains, then New York. Within the year, I would stash all my masks in the attic, forget about them. I would close the door and step out of the house. Outside, telephone wires crossed the sky like rigging from a ship: the air thick with leaves; the sun just past setting like a distant ghost, a deep shadow, hint of something hiding though almost emergent.

Zef Lisowski is a trans femme/non-binary writer and artist currently earning an MFA in poetry at Hunter College and serving as a poetry reader for Apogee. Her work has appeared recently online at Brooklyn Poets, The Wanderer,  and the VIDA Review, in print in the collaborative zine sundress comma fangs, and on stage at New York’s 2017 Live Ideas Festival and elsewhere. She’s an irredeemable Pisces. She still owns the first Goosebumps book she bought as a child.