A Regime of Marching Faceless
I’m far too afraid to wonder how they removed my face. This place is dark, full of hidden ovens. I know I have no face because I've seen the others, walking about with smooth, noseless mannequin heads. If I look carefully I can see the grey smoke poking through the corners of this dark place, the red light of hidden fires. When people vanish, we mutter to each other:
“The fires opened up. And ate them whole.”
When the fires emerge, some just stumble in. Before I can blink, the walls are closed and dark again. The screams from behind them sound as if coming from behind a gag, panicked and wild but somehow stifled.
These tunnels beneath the city are always burning. In the world above, you can see their traces in the thick vapor pouring out from tall black towers, tombstone smokestacks that mark this network of secret factories.
I’ve been walking here ever since they took my face. I don’t know how it happened, but I remember how it felt. A mask of long knives sliding across my ears and eyes. Bloodless searing. Long days of wanting to scream, but only being able to whisper through the slit that is now my mouth, functional enough only to eat the thin grey soup that keeps me warm but not full.
Occasionally, someone remembers who they were. Walking these long hallways, they suddenly stop. Sometimes I recognize their proclaimed name, an impossible thing because its owner has been dead for two or sometimes twenty years. They howl and insist, as if the veil of the world has been pulled aside and their eyes returned.
Sometimes they outrun the fires, opening as they do like secret, cavernous mouths.
And when they do the tall figures detach themselves from the walls.
They’ve folded themselves flat, so many of them, shadows melding into the architecture of the world. They creep in swirls of onyx and gold, a storm of glittering light that descends on the rememberers. The cries that come from the corner seem to escape from a full mouth and a deep throat.
When some time passes, a new faceless arrives, and I’ve already forgotten the name.
I’ve stopped trying to remember my name too. My name is more dangerous than the ovens, the fires and the shadows on the wall. My name brought the President’s yellow eyes on me, and the weight of them forced me down beneath the earth.
At times though, I remember my crime. Or I think I do. At times I was a protestor. I was a dissident. Perhaps a journalist or a student. I recall the sound of applause at a political rally, hundreds of hands pounding and slapping together with laughter and whistles. But then, when I try to escape my aimless wandering and remember the speaker, all I see is the President’s face and the nature of my crime escapes me.
This is for the best, lest my name be conjured up with my crime.
This eternal walking is better than the fires.
Being faceless is far better than being disappeared.
In fear of remembering, we tell each other lies and the stories keep us going. The world above is better than this place below. The labors of the President have born their desired fruit. No child knows hunger. No man dies in pain. We will have faces again, though they of course will not be our old ones. Not those cursed, ruined things. Soon the President will lift us out of the darkness and into the light of His holy vision. He will bring us into His arms, and He will shush away all our hurts and sins.
In the lies, in the euphoria of my President’s imagined forgiveness, I can forget that my feet are marked with bruises and callouses. The hunger in my stomach evaporates away. Somewhere the corners of my mouth-slit pull tight, and I smile as best as I can.
When I daydream, sometimes I wander too close to the walls. They open wide and I see the infernos for myself. They’re not ovens, they’re pyres. The furious burning sends a wave of cracking embers across me, pock-marking my grey clothes with smoke and black-burn marks. When this happens, I careen backwards and fall. Somewhere behind the thing that is now my face, a reserve of tears wells up and I feel like my cheeks will burst open. In the absence of eyes to cry through, I merely breathe slowly and try to remember a lie.
To imagine a new face.
I become better at imagining, at not just envisioning but in feeling the lies. I learn where the fires are hiding, and become subconsciously careful to stand in the exact middle between even the narrowest walls.
It’s only when I begin to whistle that I realize I have lips and a tongue to lick them with. I gasp and fall to my knees. My dusty hands taste metallic and sour, but my lips and tongue are there. Something wet runs along my cheek.
I swallow back my scream and decide to believe these lies. I will not draw the attention of the tall shadows. I will keep walking forward. I will keep living this lie.
When I hum, I realize my mouth is closed, that I am breathing through a nose. My fellow faceless do not notice or at least, like me, they refuse to. But it cannot be a lie, because even after I wake, curled in the middle of two narrow walls, my eyes have crust and there is dried snot under my nose.
When my ears come back I hear the secrets from the fires. The stories that live just behind the walls. I can’t help but smile all the time. Why hide such beautiful things? Why not share them with the world? So I come to sing back to the secrets to the fire, to waltz calmly between the walls.
My fellow faceless avoid me, careful to walk different labyrinthine routes so that they never meet my path. It’s not so bad now, dancing alone to the truths in the fire. Humming and singing and jumping.
When I find the yellow light, I see myself more fully. My grey clothes, stained and wet from years of sweat and walking. Long, black hair (was I always so dark-haired?) falling over my shoulders like starlight streams. I stop before the voices from the fires behind the walls tell me to move forward, that there is so much more to see.
I giggle and laugh, jubilant as I practically bounce towards the yellow light. Warm water falls from the walls and I shed my clothes. My skin feels slick and clean. The sound of the water hitting the floor reminds me of the secrets of the fire, but a calmer and more steady truth.
Across the tunnel of water is a stool with a black dress, shoes and a brush. I dress carefully, worried that after so many years of walking that I will tear and ruin the nicest clothes I have ever seen.
As I brush my hair, the wall opens up.
But there’s no fire on the other side.
The woman who looks back at me is far more beautiful than I ever was, or ever could have been. She has brilliant green eyes, a small nose, soft pink lips and long, shining hair. She is as perfect a thing as I have ever seen, angelic and far too wondrous to be in these burning tunnels beneath the city. I reach out my hand to the cold glass so that I can touch hers.
Her lips whisper the secrets of the water and fire beneath our nation. Her hand trembles against mine.
The gratitude consumes me in a sudden wave, and welling up in my stomach and escaping my throat in happy, choking sobs.
I shout out my thanks and fall to my knees.
A door swings open, revealing a long row of stairs and a kind face.
A hand extends forward and lifts me up from the floor. It brushes my hair, and wipes my tears away.
I take the hand and walk up the stairs, ready to repay my President’s generosity. Ready to thank Him forever for my new face.
For my second chance.
S. L. Edwards is a Texan currently traveling across Latin America. He enjoys dark fiction, poetry and darker beer. He is the author of the short story collection "Whiskey and Other Unusual Ghosts" and with artist Yves Tourigny the co-creator of "Borkchito: Occult Doggo Detective."