The People Without Faces

The People Without Faces

The People Without Faces 1067 1600 Lucy Zhang

No one has a face in this village. They are born with canvases of skin stretched from chin to hairline; had they had faces to begin with, their nostrils and mouths would have been melted shut, their eyelids sealed, their cartilage dissolved and nasal bridges cracked, their cheekbones flattened with a mallet. But from the warmth of a uterus to the cold oxygenated air, the villagers have never had faces. They grow up without staring in the mirror at the milia beneath their eyelashes while brushing their teeth, cursing as toothpaste suds drip onto their shirt. They shake one another’s hands without making eye contact, without triggering a blink and blink and blink to the acceleration of neuroticism—the floor is shifting, the sky is falling—one gaze broken, one saccade paralyzed.

Down the road, a few miles from the town square, stands a shack of a building that sells masks. When it is time to leave the village, people visit the store to purchase a custom-tailored mask. They enter the building through the front entrance that looks like a back entrance not because of the inconspicuous doorknob or how the shade of the door matches the walls precisely, but because the entire structure seems to turn away with its back facing the sun, when it senses a customer’s presence.

The shopkeeper asks them to sit, measures the circumference of their heads, the surface area of their scalps, the depth of their souls in millimeters as captured through imagined eyes for windows, while confirming details of the customer’s desired mask: the distance between the eyes, the width of the mouth, one dimple or two. Do they want to live in a four-bedroom house with a Labrador retriever bounding back and forth whenever the doorbell rings, all surrounded by a white picket fence? Or do they want to couch surf from country to country, never in one place with people of the same skin tone and hair color for too long? If they had to give up their sight, voice, or hearing, which would they abandon? Morning person? Breakfast person? Thursday is the new Friday person?

When the masks are done, the shopkeeper stitches them onto the customers’ skin. It takes three weeks for the stitches to dissolve and for the seam between skin and mask to meld into rough, semigranulated ridges hidden by hair. When they first open their new eyes, they see the bare walls of an operating room and seek out the lone mirror hanging behind the door. They inspect their coordinated blemishes, the angle of eyebrow arch, the calculated inconsistency of wrinkles for each smile. Their fingers itch at the mask without volition, attempting to remove the foreign bumps and lumps like a winter hare who suddenly adopted scales for a coat, and the shopkeeper reassures them the mask will “grow in.”

Those with their new masks leave the village two days later. They spend some time bidding farewell to their faceless family members and friends before following the dirt path littered with jagged gravel and stones. It goes on for miles. Their feet hit the pavement when they forget how to discern their family from the rest of the villagers. Then they call an Uber or Lyft to the nearest Holiday Inn, where they spend a night memorizing their eye color and freckle patches. The next day, they leave the photo of their faceless self on the bedside desk and smile at the cleaning lady and receptionist as they check out.

There is a village of people born without faces. They emerge from the womb unable to see one another’s skin pigment and irises and stray fallen eyelashes. The shopkeeper, who is the mask maker, who is a villager, crafts a soul into pinched and kneaded and hardened then softened skin, seals it on with the precision of a surgeon and wishes customers all the best when they depart.

Header photograph © William C. Crawford.

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