Malik had worked in hospitality all of his adult life. He was a seasoned pro. He’d seen celebrities, and politicians pass through the lobbies of the hotels where he’d worked. He’d seen ambulance crews rush out dying guests on gurneys, and once, a pregnant woman’s water broke as she was checking in. From drunken rowdy groups to spaced-out millennials high on some mind-altering substance, he’d seen it all. Or he thought he’d seen it all.
His new job as a night auditor at the Lotus, however, made him feel like a hayseed. There wasn’t drama here, as much as there was strangeness. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. The hotel itself was a strange space.
Vittorio, the manager who’d interviewed him, said, “We don’t use the H-word. The Lotus is an environment. It’s a space away from home and office, where the guests can inhabit for a brief moment.” Vittorio was tall, thin, tanned and dressed in immaculately black clothing. He was bald, but for the thin mustache he had, which was also black, as were his eyes. His eyes were all pupil, and both of them were lazy. They were like black moons, out of orbit. “We call it a Transitory Dwelling Experience, or TDE.”
In other words, a hotel, thought Malik. He was careful to keep his face clear of any derision. He wanted the job, after all. The Lotus (Hotel) had once been an underground parking lot. There were five levels underground, giving it a distinctly warren-like feel. Vittorio had given him a tour of the grounds.
The lobby and registration level was minimalist. Slate grey tiles with navy blue walls were hung with black and white photographs of seemingly random objects, none of which remotely suggested leisure, vacation or sleep. There was a picture of a one-eyed cat, a shattered light bulb, and an unopened can of lutefisk. The lobby chairs were all recliners, with their wire underpinnings exposed. They looked uncomfortable and severe. Four of them surrounded a rectangular pool of water as dark as ink. A fake lotus flower floated in its center and bone-white carp slipped through the liquid, aquatic ghosts. The registration desk faced the restaurant, a poorly lit room called Mortar and Pestle that served muddled drinks, gremolatas, chimmichurri-sauced steaks, and exotic pestos. Mortar and Pestle was overstaffed and under-attended. The patrons always looked sad. Malik read somewhere that the restaurant was the top spot for relationship dissolutions and hostile corporate takeovers.
Level 2 had walls painted emerald green, a mosslike carpet and doors a brilliant turquoise shade. The scent of freshly mown grass oozed from the air vents.
Topaz yellow was the color of Level 3, accented by mustard colored doors and the scent of lemon verbena. Sapphire blue and amethyst were the colors of levels 4 and 5. Each level had precisely 13 rooms, labeled thusly: Sapphire 2, or Topaz 14. (The 13th room was never labeled as such—a hotelier’s tradition). It took Malik awhile to learn the lingo.
For the most part, Malik enjoyed his job. The guests who checked in at night were always interesting, if not pleasant. They were mostly tall, modelesque Europeans with sharp, avian features dressed in perfectly ironed clothing. Malik felt small and shabby in their presence. For the most part, they ignored him as they chattered on their cellphones.
The Mortar and Pestle closed at 11pm. A slow trickle of depressed people traipsed through the lobby, their downcast faces on the slate tile. One tall dark-skinned woman in a brilliant violet dress was openly weeping, the tears spilling down and splashing on her dress. An older Asian gentleman in a lamé smoking jacket trailed behind her, scowling. Fifteen or so minutes later, the staff left still wearing their kitchen and floor uniforms. A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered over them. Soon, Malik was alone at the front desk.
It was the middle of the week, and there was a mere scattering of guests—perhaps five occupied rooms. The Lotus, like all hotels (or TDEs) mostly got busy starting on Thursdays. There were no scheduled check-ins. He sat down, and pulled out his little netbook, where he had downloaded some movies to watch. It was probably going to be a long night, so he had also downloaded a few podcast episodes on his phone as well.
He watched violent crime thriller that starred an actress previously known as a Pollyanna-ish child actor from a sitcom. On the sitcom, her catchphrase had been, “Holy Cannoli!” Her new ‘scandalous’ role in Wicked Angel was as a novice nun who killed pedophile priests in awful and frankly absurd ways. One pedo-priest was grilled alive on a fast food restaurant’s flattop. Another had a piano dropped on him. Sister Bernadette, the zealot the actress portrayed, walked up to the dying man, caught in the web of wires slicked with his blood and played a hymn on the damaged keyboard, an act that exacerbated the priest’s dire condition. Then there was the eye-gouging scene, which went on forever. The movie had been panned by critics. They drubbed it, of course, “Unholy Cannoli.”
He then put on his headphones and played a podcast where two people discussed Wicked Angel, a long and rambling palaver that referenced the 1980s, Giallo movies and the vaporwave soundtrack. The female host said that the soundtrack wasn’t vaporwave at all; it was instrumental witchhouse. The two of them went back and forth over the proper genre classification of the soundtrack for some time. (Malik thought the soundtrack was just some Casio-keyboard samples played over and over again). The podcast’s hosts names were Pyewacket and Vinegar Tom. He imagined that they were two high white people in their twenties recording their show in the dank basement of a group house. Both of them probably had dreadlocks and fake Rastafarian hats.
Malik put the podcast on pause when the door opened. It didn’t happen often, but sometimes there were walk-ins, due to emergencies. Usually, they were lawyers who had late hours and didn’t feel like cabbing it out to the suburbs. The person who walked into the lobby, though, was no lawyer.
The man wore a mask over his face. An intricately carved wooden mask that had horns protruding from the top. The horns were notched and ridged, like the antlers of an antelope, and the angular shapes of the mask’s features suggested a non-Western technique was used on the ashy-blond wood. The rest of the man’s outfit was more or less conventional. A flowing black shirt over loose black pants, both embroidered with arabesques of silver thread. Malik dropped his earbuds. He was used to strange happenings at the Lotus. But, at the Lotus, strangeness was mostly a white people phenomenon. The foibles of the eccentric rich were expected. This antelope-masked gentleman, though, was Black. Malik could see his dark hands.
Malik thought, Holy Cannoli, when the man sidled up to the reservation desk.
“Good evening,” His voice was a deep velvety baritone, the voice of a seventies soul singer. “I would like to inquire about the possibility of a group of us staying the night.” Malik couldn’t see the man’s eyes. The mask had no lips, so it was disconcerting to hear a voice emanate from the wood. The voice was not muffled in any way.
“We have vacancies.” Malik found it hard to look at the mask. There was no point of reference. No eyes, or nose. And while he knew that the horns were decorative, they still looked imposing. “What happened?” Malik asked as he typed into the reservation system.
The antelope-man said. “Our group has been unceremoniously unhoused from current hotel. Such ignorance and bitch-assness. Pardon my French. That hotel has hosted Adult Babies and Bondage Parties. But as soon as a group of black men appeared . . . ”
“How many people are in your group?” Malik asked.
“There are twelve of us,” the antelope man replied.
“We have rooms available,” Malik said, after checking the reservation software on his computer.
The masked man stepped away from the desk and produced a cell phone from some invisible pocket. He walked to the other side of the pool’s shore, and made a call. Malik activated the room keycards, deciding to house the group on the Amethyst level, the lowest of the levels. He had no idea what sort of group the masked man led. Were they a secret society, like the Freemasons? A religious group? A fantasy football league? The masked man paced back and forth by the lotus pool. When the automatic doors slid open, he stepped around to greet the crowd that entered the Lotus.
And what a crowd they were. All of them wore wooden masks. Malik counted five antelope masks, some of them embossed with swirling designs, and six oval masks made of intricate rows of scales. Malik had no idea what sort of creature these masks were supposed to represent. Snakes? Armadillos? All of the mask wearers were otherwise sharply dressed in suits of houndstooth, pinstripes and herringbone. They pored into the lobby, laughing and chatting away. Some of the masks had wooden lips that moved in time with their speakers’ voices. Other masks had slits, or, like the head antelope’s, no mouthpiece at all.
A line formed and Malik took credit cards and handed out keys. Some of them had unique names. (For example: Euphrates Okonkwo. Ra Wilson. Hyperion Jones. Rhys Okorafor. Orion Okeke. And Cancer Morrigan). The Antelope Man’s name was Jupiter Siggurson, which sounded made up but sure enough, his credit card and ID confirmed this unlikely name.
They all entered the elevator and rode down to the Amethyst level. At least they were isolated from the rest of the potential guests, sequestered on their own floor.
The hours passed slowly. Malik returned to the podcast, and found it unlistenable. Vinegar Tom and Pyewacket prattled on an on, with self-absorbed and inane observations. Instead, Malik began searching on the web about the new mysterious group that settled in the Lotus. His search terms looked the lines of a forgotten surrealist poem.
BLACK MEN MASKED GROUP
WOODEN FACES SOCIETY
CARVED AFRICAN DISGUISES
None of these bore any useful information. Then he narrowed the search to African masks, and one of the first hits had a picture of the antelope man’s mask.
It was called a Chiwara, and it was a representation of a Bambara nature spirit. He saw several examples—both masks and sculptures. All of them had the grooved horns, but the beasts they crowned were abstract things, made of elongated snouts and stylized features. Quite a few of them didn’t look like antelopes at all. The nature spirit was sacred to the Bambara people of Mali. The demigod was half man, half antelope, and taught the people agriculture. Western artists like Picasso were inspired by the “primitive” artwork and made their own versions. (Or parodies, according to some people). Was the group of men on the Amethyst level a group of artists or scholars? Because Malik had a hard time imagining that a bunch of Bambara tribesman just happened to be in the city, let alone the hotel. (Or TDE).
At 2am, Malik left for his lunch hour. Nothing was open so he ate his sad dinner-lunch in the tiny break room. He desultorily searched more about the strange group on his phone while he ate a tuna salad sandwich with too much mayonnaise and odd addition of apple chunks and bean sprouts. It didn’t taste bad, per se. The taste was surprising and not quite appropriate. Like a group of Afrocentric artists in a Eurotrash hotel.
Malik had only been propositioned at the Lotus. Once by an Icelandic DJ named Einar after a club set, and another time by Anna, a Swedish woman with ice-blonde hair, pale blue eyes and teeth the yellow of parchment from her incessant cigarette smoking. Both of them had referred to Malik as a “chocolate treat,” and he declined both offers. White bodies could be sexy but just a whiff of racial objectification was an instant boner-killer. Because people weren’t fucking him. They were fucking whatever Blackness was in their imagination. He became an object, like a sculpture or a painting, his uniqueness vanquished. For one brief, transgressive moment, Malik had the vision of fucking Einar and Anna’s pale bodies, penetrating them with a dick that was notched and grooved like the horn of an antelope. It was a distasteful flash of an image. Malik got hard anyway.
His phone rang, startling him out of his impromptu hard-on shame. It was his friend Kiki. She was probably getting ready to leave for the early morning shift at the bakery.
“Greetings, my fellow night-time nigga,” she said and started singing ‘Nightshift’ by the Commodores. “Any freaky Lotus stories to entertain me with?”
“Excuse you. It’s a transitory dwelling experience, for your information. And no, it’s dead up in here.”
Kiki said, “I still think you should have a quickie one night. What’s the ‘mile high club’ version of the hospitality industry?”
“Ha ha. You so funny.”
“I’m serious, dawg. Grindr probably be off the charts.”
“You know them white boys don’t want me. They want a prime nigger stud to fulfill their nasty little fantasies,” Malik said.
“Where do the brothers looking to nut go?”
“Kiki, does your mama know you talk like a sailor at shore leave?!?”
“She’s the one who taught me,” Kiki said.
And both of them fell out laughing. Malik ended up with tears streaming down his face. Kiki was one of the few people who could make him laugh so hard.
He asked about her day when the paroxysms subsided. She filled him in about the antics of her cat Septimus and told him about the recipes she was experimenting with. “Do bourbon canelés sound good? How about savory croissants filled with molé sauce?”
“Your smoky chipotle strata was a hit,” Malik said. “Tyrell still talks about it to this day. ‘How’s your friend who made that savory bread pudding thing doing,’ he’ll ask.”
“Mmm—hmmm,” Kiki replied. “Is that all I am to him? A cook? Cause that nigga is fine as hell.”
“Speaking of fine ass niggas, a group of them checked in. Real freaky group. They were all wearing African masks.”
Kiki was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Are you shitting me? You mean to tell me that the Chiwara Society checked in your pretentious flop house?”
“You heard of them?” Malik leaned forward.
“You haven’t?” Kiki said, sounding incredulous. “It’s a cult or an art movement, dependent on who’s talking about them, dedicated to bringing back old tribal beliefs and crafts. A couple of years ago, they staged all these Dada like disruptions at art galleries and on college campuses. Surely you’ve seen them on YouTube?”
“You mean them guys who dressed up in those colorful weird outfits and chased college students around a couple of years ago? I think it was viral for a hot second. Why is it considered ‘a cult?’ ”
“Because these dudes have to commit to wearing the traditional outfits. They even change their legal names.”
“So, Scientology for niggas?”
Kiki giggled. “You are too much. There is something wrong with you, boy. Listen, I gotta hop into the shower before I skrt-skrt to la boulangerie. Holler at you later.”
The end of the conversation coincided with the end of Malik’s pitiful lunch. When he returned to the desk, there was someone standing in front of it. It was the current dweller of Sapphire 7, a grey-haired diminutive gentleman who Malik was pretty sure was having a tryst due to the parade of young beauties of both genders who he sent down to his room. (Vittorio said, “The Transitory Dwelling Experience is free of judgement and respectful of discretion.”) Malik could tell he was agitated due to his frenzied pacing. Sapphire 7 was dressed in a pale green leisure suit which had the unfortunately effect of making him look like a fashionable leprechaun.
“You have got to do something about those people on the level below me,” Sapphire 7 said. “They are making entirely too much noise!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. St John.”
“It’s pronounced sin-gin. Rhymes with engine. But never mind. Just get them to shut the hell up. It’s three-thirty am on a weeknight! They woke me and Coco up with all their racket.”
“Let me check into it,” Malik said. He glanced at the CCTV of the Amethyst level. The screens were blank. That’s weird, he thought. All of the other levels showed up on the computer screens. Had someone disabled it? And how had they done it?
“I’ll go down and have a talk with those guests,” Malik said after trying to bring up the cameras to no avail. He put the BE RIGHT BACK sign up on the desk, and rode the elevator down with Sapphire 7, who complained the whole way down. He blathered on and on about how hip he was, how he liked to party when he was younger but he was never, never so self-centered as the people on the level below. Malik was more than happy to leave Sapphire 7 on his sapphire floor.
When the elevator door opened, Malik saw the long purple tongue of the hallway, the spaced lozenges of fluorescent light, the bright purple walls, the matte plum of the numbered rooms. He expected this. What he didn’t expect, though, was the silence. The Amethyst level was the party level since it was so deep underground and sound was dampened by the insulating walls of concrete. Theoretically, Sapphire 7 should not have heard any sound at all. Musicians and DJs held decadent parties on this level, soirees full of debauchery and drugs. Yasmin, one of the day staff, told him about finding crack pipes and cocaine residue in the aftermath of one such epic get-together.
The first thing Malik did was check the CCTV camera. The red indicator light showed that it was on and nothing was covering the lens. Perhaps there had been a hiccup in the broadcast. He walked the length of the purple hall, stopping to listen at Amethyst 7 to see if there was any sound coming from there. There was only silence. Maybe the party had ended as he was descending. At Amethyst 14, he saw a small sliver of light in the door crack. But he heard no sound. Maybe the occupant was watching TV with the volume low. Malik shrugged and headed back to the elevator. Aside from his lunch hour, he wasn’t permitted to leave the desk unattended for more than ten minutes. Just before he pressed the ‘up’ button, he heard a door open.
Amethyst 14, the thirteenth door. Malik turned to see the antelope-headed men pour out of the suite in a steady procession. One by one, they emerged, their horns just barely missing the ceiling. Then he felt, rather than heard vibration from a polyphony of hidden drums. Rhythm patterns competed with each other. He watched as they lined up in facing rows, the drum beats becoming relentless and complex. Malik heard bass drums and the sizzle of shakers some kind. The sound crowded his brain until he couldn’t think.
When they were all lined up like statues, the masked men all turned towards him and each of them extended a hand.
Malik stepped forward. Why? Mostly like because it would be a great story to tell Kiki. That was most likely. But another part of him was intrigued. There was a queer beauty to this ceremony. It’s like being in a museum, he thought. He stepped forward and —
Dry dust, dried raffia strands and endless stalks of millet appeared in place of a hall of purple walls and carpets. He was surrounded by the masked men and they performed a slow dance where they bowed to the sacred earth below their feet, or five levels above. Malik heard the harp-like sound of a plucked instrument, and the plinging sound of a xylophone. The Chiwara Society worshiped the Earth, but they also worshiped him. Malik found himself removing his clothing. Why? It felt right. And when the last article of clothing dropped in that dusty corridor, he felt it. Felt them: two burning spikes of bone protruding out of his head. Malik screamed. It hurt. It also gave him a hard-on, a third burning spike.
The masked men removed their clothing, but not their masks. Each of them got in front of the hotel room doors on all fours, displaying their magnificent buttocks. They spread them wide, until he could see their gaping holes.
He knew what he had to do. The ceremony was a fertility rite of some kind. (The millet must be planted!) Something moved through Malik, who now dripped with sweat, and blood and other fluids.
He woke up in Amethyst 14, covered in dried raffia among other dried fluids. It was almost six a.m. when he came to. His whole body ached, as if he had done strenuous exercise. And his head ached, the pain particularly intense in two spots on his forehead. When he stepped out into the hall, all of the doors were open and a dry dust had accreted in little hillocks in the various corners. The room themselves were empty and mostly free of the dust.
Malik only halfway remembered the orgy that had taken place beneath the earth. The glistening body parts, the musky smells. The wrecked orifices. The flickering lights, the raspy moans. Most of all, those wooden, unmoving masks. He thought, I won’t tell Kiki about this. I won’t tell anyone about this. He felt a weird mixture of disgust and transcendence.
Thankfully, the elevator was clean, save for one braided strand of raffia.
It would only be an hour until his day shift relief came. Hopefully, Yasmin would bring donuts and coffee.
He found the black business card on his seat before he sat down. There was just a phone number, gold embossed and in italics. The back of the card had a picture of a Chiwara. The curved eyes and their relentless, empty stare plucked his anxiety like a kora string.
He threw the card away. Then, he reached into the trash, and pocketed it.
Originally published in Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, edited by Dave Ring.