There were so many things he didn't understand, this boy in the mask who was born in darkness…
Oh, Gerard tried to explain to him all the things he couldn't see, like the yellow ball in the sky called the sun, and the fluffy looking clouds, and rain, but what did such things mean to him, all the way down here below the earth? When would he ever see the sky in daytime, as others did, and watch it turn from blue to grey as it often did in Paris? Whenever Gerard took him up to the Opera House roof for some fresh air or just for a change of scenery the sky was always black, or a very dark shade of blue, sometimes sprinkled with stars, and this spectacle was more than enough for him.
And then there was the sun! Gerard showed him pictures of this mysterious yellow orb in books, telling him that the Earth revolved around it, that it was millions of miles away even though you could see it in the sky and that it provided light and heat to the world during the day. Day. He struggled to understand that word down here, where it was always dark and where the sun could never penetrate.
"You know, you would never be able to look at the real sun for as long as that," he explained to the bewildered child who was unable to take his eyes off the picture, "It is so bright that it would blind you."
An object so bright it could blind you! Such a thing was beyond his comprehension, here in the eternal darkness where candles and lanterns provided the only light he needed. And why would anyone need more light than that?
In fact those items were really only for Gerard's benefit; he could see in the dark perfectly well, having known nothing else since his eyes first opened and he often led the older man around dark tunnels on their adventures, with his guardian desperately trying not to get left behind. Let the world Above keep their golden ball of fire; the darkness was where he belonged and the world here had excitement and discoveries of its own.
Gerard was from the world Above, but now he lived here to look after him. Sometimes though he was busy with the Opera House, where he was the manager and sometimes he had to go out for supplies, and in any case he still craved the light of his old world sometimes. So the boy was occasionally left alone and simply accepted this state of loneliness from an early age without question. Anyway, his guardian would always return down those steps with food from the Opera House kitchen and anything else they needed, like a benign god coming down from the heavens. Sometimes he would bring back a treat of some kind, which he would produce from under his cloak triumphantly – a book perhaps, or a bag of bonbons which would be rationed out carefully over the subsequent days. All these little moments of excitement in a dark world as Gerard tried to provide him with some scraps of normality.
"Tales of Ancient Greece," he announced proudly one day, holding out the aforementioned volume to his young ward, "I was searching for just the right book for you and the shop assistant was very helpful. He said his nephew loves this book".
This was followed by an explanation of shop assistant and nephew, and in this way the boy learned. In theory anyway.
Family. Another concept he understood in theory, but not in practice. What could he truly understand about people who sat together around a dinner table every evening, of a husband and wife who lived with their children, of the words mother, father, brother, sister? He had none of those things, as far as he knew. His mother was simply a beautiful vision who once sang to him and stroked his hair, and sometimes he thought even that may have been simply an exquisite dream, or formed in his mind from Gerard's stories about her or from all the times he gazed at her portrait in her old room.
All he knew of family was Gerard. Gerard. Who was he? All the child knew was that he was his uncle. But was he his father's brother or his mother's? Or just a friend of theirs? When questioned on the subject by this bright, inquisitive boy, he always changed the subject quickly. Somehow, the child knew that Gerard must have told him about being his uncle long ago when he was very small, so that the fact was always in his subconscious mind without him knowing how it got there.
It hardly mattered anyway, not in those early years. Gerard was there, his sole source of human interaction, the one who made his meals and read to him and brought him things to play with like the little toy boats that they sailed on the lagoon together. And most of all he was the one who comforted him…
It was Gerard he'd run to – of course – on that terrible day when he was no more than five, a day that would be embedded in his memory forever. The day he'd looked into the lagoon without his mask and seen what he believed to be a horrible sea monster looking back at him. Upon hearing the scream, his uncle had left what he was doing, run to him and picked him up in his arms. Then he had held him close while the distraught boy cried and cried, the sounds echoing upwards to the world Above.
"Make it go away! It's horrible!" he'd wept.
Trembling and fearful, Gerard had carried him to the table where they took their meals, sat on the bench and held him in his lap while the boy who was actually his son wept and begged him to protect him from the monster. And the beleaguered manager knew he would not be going Above today. The day he had dreaded for so long was finally here.
"Erik," he began, softly, gently, "I can't make the monster go away... I'm so sorry... The face you s-saw in the lagoon… It- it is yours…."
His cries would live in Gerard's memory for the rest of his life.
"No! No! It's not mine! It's not! I don't want that face! I want a face like yours! It's n-not f-fair!"
The boy could not see beyond his own fear and anguish, could not see the heart-breaking sadness in his "uncle's" eyes.
"Erik, hush... Erik, listen to me please.." he begged, trying to hold the child so that he would not hurt either of them, desperately trying to soothe him, wishing his beloved Belladora was still here. She would know what to do…
Sobbing gave way to hiccoughing and eventually the child had looked up, his eyes still streaming with tears.
"Erik, it doesn't matter what your face looks like. I love you and will always look after you for as long as you need me, I promise."
Even as they embraced, Gerard could not lie to him. He could not lie and tell the child that he was handsome or beautiful. He still flinched at seeing him without his mask, and always would, until the very end, but he would protect him, no matter what happened. With the greatest of reluctance he told the child that he must always wear his mask.
"You will not be frightened of your face again, if you wear it," he told the child gently, "You will never see it in the water again or in my mirror, or anywhere else. And you must always, always wear it when we go Above. I am… I am so sorry, Erik…" He handed the little boy his mask and watched in guilty relief as he put it on, hiding his face from view.
What kind of father tells his child to cover his face? he thought sadly, in the privacy of his own bedroom late that night. But he could not change anything. Already there were rumours and stories about the ghost of the Opera House and already he was encouraging them, eager to grasp this opportunity given to him so unwittingly by a superstitious company. He may not be able to look upon his own son's face but he would protect him, just as he promised on that terrible day.
Always, from then onwards, there was always guilt in the older man's eyes when he looked at the child he had fathered secretly. Guilt for teaching his own son to call him Uncle Gerard, not Papa. Guilt that he could not love this child's face, or tell him the truth about their relationship. Guilt that he must hide the child down here, away from backward, ignorant people and the insults and prejudice that he would undoubtedly suffer.
I'm sorry Erik, his eyes always seemed to be saying, I'm sorry I have to keep you here. If I could change the world I would…