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Tainaron by Leena Krohn, 1998

Mail from another city

© Leena Krohn

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Tainaron - Mail from another city





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The gate of evening - the twenty-sixth letter


Yesterday Longhorn and I visited the city museum. I wandered rather absent-mindedly through the echoing halls and corridors, which were full of the utensils of times gone by, tools, clothes and furniture. A flood of dates and names of kings flowed from Longhorn's mouth - his memory is astonishing - but hardly a detail lodged itself in my memory, although it would have been an opportunity to learn a great deal about Tainaron's past.


Weary, I happened to stop in front of a glass case where only one object was on display: a cap of some kind. It was deep black, but magnificently embroidered with stars, moons and suns. Gold and silver thread glittered as if the head-dress had just been sewn, but from the label fixed to the case I read that it was many hundreds of years old. In the centre of the cap - or perhaps it was a calotte - was a small hole.


'What kind of cap is that and why is there a hole in it?' I asked Longhorn, finally interested in what I saw.


'It is called the Gate of Evening,' Longhorn answered, delighted at the interest I showed, and immediately eager to give me all his information. 'In the old days, when Tainaronians grew old and frail and it was time for them to depart, one of their heirs brought them a cap like that. The dying person put it on their head, and it eased their last moments.'


'How on earth?' I asked.


'Because the hole is a gate, and it showed them the direction in which they were to go and so they did not stray from the right road.'


In the next room, too, there was something that aroused my interest: a row of masks. They were not demonic masks of the kind one often sees in folk museums; they were not grimacing or cruelly decorated or spattered with blood. I saw quite ordinary faces of the citizens of Tainaron staring peacefully out of point or compound eyes, antennae gently outstretched. One could see hundreds of such faces as one walked in the city; and that was what was most extraordinary about the masks.


'What are these used for?' I asked Longhorn.


'Ah,' he said thoughtfully. 'There was a time when a peculiar festival was held in Tainaron at the time of the autumn equinox, the day when day and night are equally long. These festivals gave employment to an entire profession: mask-makers. For the revellers had three kinds of mask: the first represented their faces as they were when they were quite young, the second showed their faces as they were at the midpoint of life, and the third mask as they would be when they were very old. They used the first mask in the morning, the second at midday and the third from evening to midnight.


'So at some time of the day their mask was like their own face?' I understood. The custom seemed very strange to me.


'Yes, it was the day of the equinox,' Longhorn said. 'It spanned a whole life.'


'And when were the masks taken off?' I asked.


'The masks were taken off at midnight,' he replied. 'They had fasted all day, but then they were allowed to eat and drink. There was everything in profusion, and beggars, too, were permitted to come to any table they wished.'


It was late at night by the time I returned from the city, and the vault of the sky was as black as the calotte which I had admired during the day. But behind the reflections of the city I could sense the promises of other lights, perhaps as deceptive as they. Here, too, their distance is as flabbergasting and strange as on the harbour pier where once, pierced by them, we lingered.


But I shall need no other gate of evening.


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