Before he had a face, he had a dark, fuzzy blur above his shoulders where a face should be. He could not see, smell, or smile, for he lacked the fleshy tools needed to do so. And because he desired to know such joys, to experience the world with all five senses, he ventured into the Forest of Faces.
They grew from the bark, ovals of skin that were pink, brown, beige. Each one had its eyes closed as if it were sleeping, nestled in its tree trunk like an infant in a mother’s womb — waiting to be born, waiting to be worn. Some Faceless might want a symmetrical one, while others prefer the irregularities of freckles or mismatch-colored eyes. Of course, the Faceless could not actually see the face they were picking, given their lack of pupils and corneas, but they could hope for a rough-looking one, to scare off others, or a soft-looking one, to invite them closer.
He did not really mind which face he got, so long as he got one. He was tired of being trapped inside the crackling television static of his own mind, unable to speak, unable to breathe, unable to scream if he needed to.
Like the sightless species of spider sinopoda scurion, evolved to hunt in caves devoid permanently of daylight, he moved without seeing. Holding his palm out into the void, he expected only the soft curve of nothing — and found wood instead. Inside it: the contour of a cheekbone.
And so he began the process of carving out his face, using his fingers to peel away the bark that had grown around the edges with all the tender care of Michelangelo chiseling marble to find his David. When it fell from the tree trunk into his hands, he ran his thumb across its forehead, soft as a newborn’s skin.
I’m going to see! He gently caressed some eyelashes.
I’m going to smell! He lovingly stroked a nostril.
I’m going to…
His forefinger had traced the lips from end-to-end — or had attempted to, anyway, for where there should have been a full set of lips, symmetrical on each side of the face, there was only…
His hands explored the face some more, and discovered the incompleteness went even further.
Half a nose.
Confused, he laid his hand against the tree trunk and discovered that half his face had stuck in the bark. He gently pinched its ear and tried to coax it from the tree, but it resisted him. Growing frustrated, he dug in his nails and attempted to claw it out — but the harder he struggled, the harder the tree resisted, and the missing half of his face sunk deeper and deeper until it was barely there at all.
“Well,” he said, though his voice sounded warped through only half a mouth of teeth. “Haf a face is bedda dan none ad all.”
And so he left the Forest of Faces.
Outside of it, people laughed at him. He looked funny, and spoke funny, and cruelty was only to be expected, after all.
When he looked in mirrors, he saw half a face, and on the other side of it, right down the middle, half a dark, fuzzy blur where a face should be. It was as if a pencil had erased the left side of his head, leaving only a smudge of graphite behind. He hadn’t expected perfect facial symmetry and would have been more than happy with a dimple or crooked smile — and yet, he had hoped his face would be a bit more symmetrical than that.
He envied those with two eyes, and a full nose. He wondered what it would be like to see all three hundred and sixty degrees of the world, to alternate which side of your mouth you chewed on, to stick your head into a kitchen cupboard and breathe in a whole noseful of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
He adapted, though — learned to speak without a lisp and to point his ear in the direction of people who spoke to him. Though half his world was dark, he found if he spun in a circle hard and fast and long enough, all the sky went blurry and he could pretend he was seeing it with two eyes.
And then one day, he passed someone else with half a face. Hardly believing his eye, he turned on his heel and shouted after her, “Half-face!”
She turned around, the left corner of her lip turned down. “Excuse me?”
He rushed to her, the right corner of his turned up. She looked offended at first, but upon realizing their shared handicap, her eye widened. “Oh, wow. I’ve never met anyone like me before.”
“Me neither!” he exclaimed, drinking in every inch of her, the visible and the invisible, the flesh and the shadow, the there and not-there. “I thought I was the only one.”
“Isn’t it just awful?” She began to gush in a rush of excitement. “I can’t sing to save my life, being tone-deaf and practically real-deaf. Not to mention my depth perception, I’m constantly tripping over my feet —”
He listened in quiet reverence, nodding his head during her pauses and shaking it during her moments of distress. When she finished, he asked, “Did the other half of your face get stuck in the tree, too?”
“No, I knew it was half a face when I found it.” She laughed. “My fingers are mathematically capable of counting one eye and one ear.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you pick it, then?”
“It was the only one I could find. And half a face is better than none at all, right?”
He squinted at her as if doing so would help him understand her better. “I suppose. But it does feel rather incomplete.”
“The incompleteness is only on the outside.”
“I feel it on the inside, too.”
She frowned. “I wonder if we can take them off, as easily as we put them on.” She lifted her hands to her half-face and pinched the edges. It was like peeling a decal from a window. Eagerly, she held it out to him.
He looked at the dark, fuzzy blur above her shoulders, now a perfect circle, and felt sick all of a sudden. He nudged her hand back towards her. “No, I don’t want to do that.”
She put her half-face back on and looked thoughtful — though it was hard to read her emotions, due to the lack of a second eyebrow. “You should take it. One of us should be a whole person.”
“But… you would be a none-person.”
“Just for a while, so you can see what it’s like. And then I can have a turn.”
“I have a better idea.” He moved so that he was no longer standing in front of her, but beside her, which was not the typical position in which people held conversations. Her left eye peered at him sideways, regarding him strangely.
“You see with that eye, and I’ll see with this one,” he instructed. “You smile with the left corner of your lip, and I’ll smile with the right.”
She considered that for a moment, and then her half-face lit up. The joy of the left side, compared to the void on the right, was like a sun beside a black hole. “We’ll see and hear and smell… together?”
He nodded. “Together.”
They began to walk, both craning their necks to look up at the sky.
“What do you see, on that side?” she asked.
“Me, too. And what do you hear, to the right?”
“Birdsong. Your left?”
One hand found its way into another, as two eyes on two separate faces looked upon the same world and saw it, for the first time, as something complete.
And so they walked together, side-by-side, for the rest of the day.
And the next.
And a long time after that.
Natalie Keller is an undergraduate earning her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kenyon College. Her work has appeared in Mirror Dance. She aspires to be an editor for a literary magazine and, ultimately, an author of fantasy novels — though she also secretly wishes to infiltrate the Hall of the Mountain King, overthrow the decrepit, age-old monarch, and live out the rest of her days as the Mountain Queen. Feel free to contact her at email@example.com if you are an interested accomplice.