The Book of Faces
a short story
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,
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
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
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
"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
"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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
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