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The Book of Faces

a short story
by Kay Kenyon

For a fifteen-year old without a face, I figure I'm pretty lucky. Here at Mercy General Clinic, they're going to fix me up, and not even charge me for it. All the patients at the clinic get their costs paid by Homeland, because we're temporarily under-resourced. OK, poor.

Like that bag lady making a ruckus down the hall. She's poor too, and going to get fixed. But even clear down at Admitting, I can hear her complain: "Mercy ain't general. It got to be particular, or what good it do?"

Then, down the celery-green hall comes Nurse Lovett with the new patient in tow, an old woman who looks like a potato on legs. The patient is barking out that the clinic staff took her bags away. Doesn't she know, at Mercy General, they give you all new stuff?

"I want what I had," the old woman snarls.

Nurse Lovett rolls her eyes, purses her mouth, and cinches up her nose, all at the same time. A nice trick that I've tried lots of times but can't do with the face I've got.

Anyway, Nurse Lovett says that all Yaga had -- because that's her name, Yaga -- was smelly old clothes, a rotary egg beater and a teddy bear hemorrhaging foam. Bundling Yaga down the hall, nurse pats her arm, saying she'll feel better soon.

"I already feel good," Yaga mutters.

But as she lumbers by, I'm not so sure. Her gray hair frays out from the lopsided bun at the back of her head. She's got a big rump that's balanced in front by globular breasts resting on her belt line. Lines radiate into her cheeks from a lofty nose, like mountain-fed stream beds. Dr. Hale would say she has significant lateral brow ptosis, nasolobial folds, and platysma bands (turkey neck).

I like her. She's as ugly as me.

Of course, there's no excuse for ugly these days -- or addled. The Physio-Psych Clinics work up your genome and get you your tailored drugs or personalized surgery. Pretty soon you're better than you were. Even viruses, they attack each person differently, so whether you've got the flu or Ebola, the Phy-Psy Clinic has a designer drug for you. No off the rack drugs! We're so over that. The thing about Homeland -- OK, the USA, but we're supposed to say Homeland -- is that we're in a lifestyle war. All those enemies we've got? We can't bomb them away, there's too many of them, holed up in little terrorist pockets all over the world. So we've got to show them how much better our way is than theirs. That we're happy and prosperous and that we look good. We've got the science and the money, and so that's why there's no excuse for carrying your life around in shopping bags.

Yaga still has to learn that.

When I said I was ugly? Something bad happened to my face, so things on my face aren't in the same order as usually. It's what Dr. Hale calls an acquired deformity. Given that it wasn't natural.

What happened, everybody wants to know. It just way annoys people that I don't know. They figure that since I won't talk, I'm hiding something. But I really don't remember. Why don't I talk? I don't know that either.

Dr. Hale is my main guy. He's got long white sideburns and a T-shaped brow glabellar complex -- thick, straight eyebrows, if you didn't know. Also, crows feet near his eyes, in the obicularis muscle. I wish I had an obicularis muscle. He turns the pages of the Face Book. The name on the cover is really Basal Facial Types and Maxillofacial Outcomes, but I call it the Face Book.

He knows I won't talk, but he's hoping I'll point at a page.

Here you've got the standard face shapes: the classic oval with matching high forehead and ideal balance, the square (looks best with page boy hair cut), the diamond, and even, if you have a taste for the exotic, the pear. Then there's the basic heart-shaped face, with even a heart-shaped mouth to match. There are aquiline noses, and turned up noses, and Roman noses. There are high cheek bones, full lips, and beauty marks.The trend lately is to the round face with pouty lips. I kind of like that one. But it's not me.

"We're starting from scratch," Dr. Hale says. "In a way, you're lucky, you can choose everything." He gazes at me, trying to gauge my enthusiasm for the coming surgery. Or maybe trying to find my eyes in the ridges of scar tissue. (Tip: somewhere between the malar crescent and the corrigator muscle.) But I never know what people are thinking when they look at me. I try not to guess.

Today Dr. Hale has a new guy with him. His name is Dr. Purdy.

Dr. Purdy is young, with a square face, detached earlobes with a diamond in one of them, and a slightly flared nose, possibly a rhinoplasty (nose job). I look for the scars.

He says I need to take responsibility for my attitude and approach my surgery date with a forward mentality. According to him, my not talking is a form of resistance and a compensation for my lack of control in my life. Also, that I'm afraid of the facial reconstruction that begins with removal of the anterior skull and reframing, using solid silicone and autografts.

Actually, all I'm worried about is that I thought Dr. Hale was going to be my surgeon, not Dr. Purdy.

My old doc pats my hand. He can tell I'm disappointed. Somehow he's learned to read my expressions. Thank God I have some.

The pages of the Face Book turn, and young women look out at me, all of them with dramatic and satisfying facial features--the tranquil inhabitants of a decorator world. A place where the sound does not exist, of bone shattering under a thin layer of skin.

I don't think that world has bag ladies, either.

Yaga is selling fortunes at the water fountain. You give her a quarter and press the bar, and when the water blurps up, she reads the story in it.

I don't have a quarter, but I get to hear the story Mr. Burgess paid for. Mr. Burgess is the patient who had a stroke and can't remember all his words. He's been at Mercy General the longest, so he'll get his suite of drugs any day now. Meanwhile, he wants a story.

He drops a coin in the outstretched hand. "OK, Yaga, how 'bout one of them fortunes?"

Yaga scowls. "It ain't a fortune. It a story."

He nods. "Well, you can keep the quarter anyhow."

She sucks her teeth and drops the coin down her scoop-necked clinic gown. It lodges where it's supposed to, and Mr. Burgess turns on the fountain, slicking the basin with water. Yaga peers at the watery film.

"Oh yes," she says, "this water been round abouts. Been here, been there, been pickin' up stories. It been in the Amazon, and it cleaned polar bear teeth when it was snow. It been in piss and soufflés. Been around, yes."

That's her shtick. She says all the elements in the world keep recycling through. There's, like, no new ones. They're all real old, and been around. And they remember things. (OK, stars make new elements, Yaga says. But, she goes on, we a long way from them stars.)

Mr. Burgess nods when he hears about polar bears and piss. Folks like how she builds up to a story.

Yaga says, "This water been in George Washington and Kung Fucious. But this here ain't about presidents and such, it's about Ramon and his wife."

She squints hard at me to see if I'm paying attention, or maybe not liking that I didn't pay my quarter.

"Ramon and his wife Clara, they lived with their pig, they were that poor. The pig be Clara's favorite, but still, it didn't go so good, she had to share her house with it."

Nurse Lovett comes by, giving us what Mr. Burgess calls the Stink Eye. (It isn't a technical term as such, but it gets the point across.) Mr. Burgess has been skipping his group therapy sessions. He says Yaga's better than a dose of whining in a circle.

Yaga went on: "Clara says, 'Ramon, we livin' in filth, this little clap trap place. Build me a house.'

"'Oh, you right, woman,' he'd say. But everyday he come home from the expresso bean fields, and he so tired, he go right to bed.

"Clara says, 'Ramon, we been through ten pigs, but we still livin' in this pig sty.'

"Ramon says, 'I gonna build you a palace, woman.'

"But Clara says, 'I got me a pig and a lazy man, and they one and the same.'

"So come the day when Clara finds that she no longer young. She got married plump and good lookin', but now she all hard and her breasts gone flat.

"And Ramon wakes her in the middle of the night -- he been working late -- and though she grumble, he take her to the place by the lake where, yes, he got a new house all built and fresh and three times the size that clap trap place they livin' in. For Ramon, he gone there every day, once bean pickin' done, and he workin' on that house for Clara.

"Then Clara, she say, 'Oh Ramon, I such a true bitch. I sorry.'

"He says, 'No, you a hard woman for sure. But you keep me going, all these years. Give me something to hope for. And besides, I scared of being a pig.'"

Yaga nods. "And that what the water say, that lived with Ramon and his wife."

Mr. Burgess grins. "Yeah, that's just how it is, too. A woman will nag you 'till you get it right."

He shambles happily away, leaving me staring at Yaga. For the first time I notice that there's a black hair growing straight out her chin mole, like a price tag filament.

"You found your face in that book yet?" Yaga asks.

I shake my head. Though I don't remember who I was, I hope seeing a face like mine will jog my memory.

Yaga spits into the drinking fountain. (That is so against the rules.) "You finally got a quarter?"

No, I don't. I don't need a story, I need a face.

OK, here's the new rules: No getting drinks at the water fountain. No telling fortunes. Especially no telling fortunes in the bathtub. No skipping group therapy. No spitting.

Yaga doesn't care that it's aimed at her, she goes right ahead finding stories in the toilet bowls. But mostly, she just wanders the halls looking for her shopping bags.

"When you leave," Mr. Burgess says, trying to be helpful, "we'll get you new bags."

Yaga snorts.

Dr. Hale and Dr. Purdy stand in the doorway to my room. Dr. Hale looks guilty, staying behind as Dr. Purdy comes forward. He taps on the Book.

"Time to decide."

I look wildly at Dr. Hale, but he turns away. I'm Dr. Purdy's patient now. Panicking, I slap through the pages. Page 81, that's a good one, looks like Jinn Fizz, the streaming Internet star. But no, the chin's not right. I feel for where my chin should be. There's just not a dimpled chin in there, I decide. Page 120, almond eyes, full lips, and an excellent genioplasty. No, not right. Page 163...

Then I notice Dr. Hale is standing next to me, pressing his hand over mine to stop the pages turning. "Don't decide right this second. Take a couple of days."

As they leave, Dr. Purdy says, "Two days then. I'm slotting you in for 10:15 on Tuesday. Either you pick one or I will."

I watch them go. My therapist says I'm frozen at the choice point. Like a rat in a maze, I have too many options, so I choose none.

But that's not it. There's only one choice. It's just not in the Book.

That night I sneak into Yaga's room. So she can tell me what I was Before. So she can look at the Book and pick out something close.

Because I know that Yaga doesn't tell the future. She tells the past, like she always said. The stuff of the world goes round and round, and if you look hard enough, you see that it carries the stories of all the things it's been. Yaga says that elements have long memories (that's elements, not elephants!). It means that all I ever was, still exists, somewhere. And maybe Yaga can find it.

I bring her a cup of water, but we leave the lights out so Nurse Lovett won't come snooping. In the moonlight, Yaga stares at the paper cup. Then she drinks the water.

"Some stories," she says, "don't go with paper cups." She takes my hand in hers, though I try to pull away, not liking to be touched.

She's got a grip on me, with her big hand like a bear trap. "Tell old Yaga what happened."

I open my mouth, just to see if Yaga is magic, and can conjure words from my throat. Nope. She's not that good.

"Tell me," she says again, and her face relaxes into itself and the wrinkles deepen, making new gullies in her flesh. She gazes at me a long time. It's the first time I can remember somebody looking at me so long and not tensing up.

I follow the lines of her face from one trough to the next, life lines pressed into a pattern that comes from hard living, and lots of it. I get lost there, all those topo lines, all that life. But Yaga is patient, and waits with me. Sometime during the night my eyes heat up and water collects along the places where I used to have eyelashes. (That would be the lacrimal glands in action, crucial for good eye lubrication.)

Yaga nods when the tears start moving down my face. "That the water we been lookin' for," she says.

Then the story comes pouring out. About the young girl and what happened. How they came that night to her house, and when her father wouldn't tell them what they wanted to know, they started to beat her, but just her face. Then her father started saying things, but it wasn't what they wanted to hear, and they bashed her face some more. The back of her head slammed against the floor every time they struck her face. They used a bookend on her forehead, chin, and cheekbones. There went those infraorbital rims, among other things. She couldn't see by then, but she heard her father sobbing, and then heard the other thing. Somehow her father got ahold of one of their guns, and he turned it on himself, and the noise came, of the gun. They did stop beating her then. If she could remember any of this, she would remember that he killed himself to make them stop. And if she could remember anything, she would remember that if it wasn't for her, her father would still be alive.

Yaga dries my eyes. "Your father's dead. But your mother, she out lookin' for you, every day."

I bury my face in the cleft of her breasts, and, my nose next to all those quarters, I cry and cry.

"Yes," Yaga croons. "To watch a parent die, that very hard." After a time she went on, "Only thing worse, be to watch a child die."

I've brought the Book with me. I put her hand on the pages and urge her to turn them.

She doesn't even glance at it. "It not in the the Book," she says. "It in here." She lays her hand against my face. "It always be there."

My own hand goes on top of hers, so there's two layers of hands on my face, like the dermis and epidermis that once were. But Yaga says, it's in there. My face. Things remain. Or at least they remember. For the first time since I came to the clinic, I smile.

At least I think it was a smile.

I gather up the Book. As I turn to leave, I notice that Yaga's got a shopping bag under her bed. I can just see the brown head of a teddy bear with stuffing coming out the back.

So she found it. This Yaga, she's good at finding things.

Everybody's screaming. Why do people scream in a crisis? Women scream, men holler. It's just one of those questions I've got stuffed in my head.

What are they screaming about? All that water.

The water main must have burst sometime last night, because it's swamped the lawn in front of the clinic, and rushed into the below-ground part of the building. Mr. Burgess is shouting that the water's halfway up the stairs. Now, the only way that level could fill up with water so fast is if someone accidentally left on the bath tub tap. On all of the bath tubs.

I figure Yaga must of got some great stories from those tubs before they spilled over.

Nurse Lovett is sprinting down the hall in her nightgown, because it's only 6 a.m. And because she's trying to evacuate people, because the fire alarm's gonging. Of course it's gonging. The sprinklers are all on, raining down on frocked patients who've rushed into the hall and are now getting their morning shower. Fire department will be here soon, so I got to do my assignment and be quick.

At the drinking fountain -- the one Yaga re-hooked the water pipe to -- I reach into my clinic gown and pull out the duct tape, wrapping it around the lever so the water arcs out. Permanently.

It's just a little act of rebellion, because we've got a good mess going already and don't really need the extra water. When they find the duct tape, they'll know it was us. No point hidin' our light under a barrel, Yaga said last night.

I said to her (yeah, I'm somehow talking again), But isn't this, like, an act of terrorism? I mean, I'm patriotic, even if the guys who wreaked my face didn't think so. I wouldn't stoop to terrorism.

Yaga said, Think this is somethin'? You should of seen the mess I made down to the central clinic last year.

But, I kept on, We don't want to be just like the enemy.

Yaga looked me up and down. Better than to be the enemy, she says. That young doc who wants a go at your face? He practicin', you know. All us indigents here, that can't afford the big drugs, the big suite of stuff built just for you? We're what they practice on. That doc, he never done a face before.

How does she know?

She looked him up on the Web. His vitae, she said, is real short.

So all this about Homeland being the best place in the world? I still believe that. It's just that we don't have to prove it like this. Most of the world, they do want to be like us, but not for long if it's all got be decorated a certain way. Lots of folk, they don't care about pretty, they just want real.

Yaga meets me at the back door. She's got her stuff, all of it. And she's got something else: a scarf to mostly cover my face and head, so I look very Muslim.

"Won't I stand out?" I ask.

"Bein' Muslim ain't a crime. Yet." She fiddles with the lock, reaming it out with a length of wire, like a surgeon probing a wound. "Got it." The lock clucked, and we were out. The edge of the woods was a long way off, past a green swath of lawn, big as a football field. Behind me, I'm listening for the enemy team to come tackle us. Dr. Purdy, with his pale, steady hands. Dr. Hale, with his manly eyebrows. But nobody's following us yet.

We start to hoof it across the clipped grass. In the distance, the sirens are keening. At the side of the clinic, I can see Nurse Lovett herding her patients into the parking lot.

"Won't they pick us up, Yaga? Looking like we do?"

For a big woman, Yaga has an easy, rambling gate. She's puffing, but she's fast. As she runs, she says, "You think there ain't a underbelly? Every place got a little hidey hole for them that don't fit. That where we goin'."

I don't care where it is, long as I can start looking for my mom. Yaga says we can do some looking virtually and some on foot. Till we find my mom who's got pictures of me, the mom who takes them out and cries over them, who's got a little shrine set up in my old bedroom, where all my stuff is, that helps her remember.

OK. I made up that shrine part. But it's a good story, and it'll keep me going.

We made it to the woods, panting. Yaga sets down her shopping bags, wheezing and spitting.

I offer to carry a bag. She squints at me real hard, pushing out her lower lip and making the hair in her mole point forward. Finally, she hands me the bag with the teddy bear in it, and she sets off in front, leading the way, the other shopping bag banging against her leg as she trots.

It's an honor to carry the brown bear. The one that belonged to the child she had to watch die. Some day I figure I'll hear the story of what happened. Because it all remains, even if it's over, even if it's gone.

Setting out, we run beside a stream, and Yaga looks at the flickering rapids. I hope she knows we don't have time to stop and find stories.

I've got my face to find.

© Kay Kenyon 2003, 2005.
This story first appeared in New Voices in Science Fiction edited by Mike Resnick (DAW, 2003).
Bright of the Sky by  Kay Kenyon The Braided World by  Kay Kenyon
Maximum Ice by  Kay KenyonTropic of Creation by  Kay Kenyon
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