red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or
so hideous. . . . But Prince Prospero
was happy and dauntless . . . It was toward the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion that
the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”
Prince Prospero assures us daily that we are safe, and no one dares
contradict him. We’re the lucky elite, secure inside the castle, or so he claims.
For months no one has ventured beyond the second wall he built outside the moat. There’s
no news of the peasants outside, no news reports at all, anymore.
Today our attendance was required at the grandest of the Prince’s
grand balls—all of us masked, a new edict. Prince Prospero has been circulating for
hours among the revelers in a garish orange mask, surrounded by the usual entourage of
sycophants and toadies. “Merry Christmas to all!” he proclaims, glass held
high. Champagne began flowing at noon, when most of us were still bleary-eyed and hungover
from last night’s party. The Prince’s wife, who is nowhere to be seen, has
decorated the ballroom in mournful black and blue streamers, instead of the traditional
red and green. There’s no Christmas tree this year.
offer caviar and other delicacies on golden trays, though they say
the Prince eats nothing but greasy peasant fare. He looks bloated and unhealthy, but no
one says so, of course. Prospero waves his tiny hands, and we dance like mechanical dolls.
Every hour, our forced revelry is momentarily interrupted by the chiming of the enormous
When the clock struck one, we all froze in place
without knowing why. Perhaps some had secret instructions and the rest followed. Is it
a party game, like the children’s game “Giant Steps,” adapted to show
us Prospero’s power? Or some tacit acknowledgment of the power of Time itself?
Two. Again, the music and dancing ceased. Six
months ago, there were a thousand of us in the castle. Most of us know someone, or know
someone who knows someone, who has disappeared.
We haven’t seen the royal physicians for some time. Have they
died? Been imprisoned? Executed? “Fake news,” Prospero declared, proposing
outlandish solutions to the rumored contagion. “Don’t believe what you hear.”
Three. And again, all movement was suspended.
Some of the dancers were doubled over, gasping for breath.
The musicians began to repeat the same merry Christmas airs. “Jingle
bells. Jingle bells.”
Five. Dancers were reeling and staggering. A few
carolers sang, “We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Six. Bodies clad in gay colors began dropping
to the floor, but we pretended not to see. What could we do?
More bodies. We looked the other way, aghast.
Prince Prospero seemed unaware that anything was amiss, and no one
wanted to risk his ire by speaking up. The musicians played an instrumental version of
“Silent Night” on violins.
Nine. The Prince asked us whether we’d ever
seen a grander ball.
Ten. His minions began to clear the corpses away,
as we danced on.
Eleven. A masked figure dressed in black and dabbled
in blood stalked through the ballroom toward Prospero. A stranger, cadaverous and unusually
tall, though no newcomers have been admitted to the castle for months.
Some of us rushed to the exits when the specter
appeared, but we’re trapped here. All the doors are locked. We whisper to
each other, confiding the secret fears we’ve left unvoiced, describing the strange
dreams that have plagued us for so long. Our whispers are becoming louder; hardly anyone
is dancing; the musicians falter but play on.
By now we’re sure of the stranger’s identity. Prince Prospero is the
only one of us who didn’t believe that Death would crash his party. We all knew he
was mad. But who knew the Prince’s ignorance could be fatal to us all?
Jacqueline Doyle is the author of The Missing
Girl, available from Black Lawrence Press. Her flash has appeared in matchbook,Wigleaf,
CRAFT, Little Fiction/Big Truths, Juked, and elsewhere. She lives in
the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.comand
on twitter @doylejacq.