Everyone dreamt of becoming the next Great Esthetician. We were kids, the lot of us. We stayed that way as long as we could.
It all began the day we emerged from the trees and out onto the field. That was the day we first laid eyes on the Face. It lay in the field amidst a cluster of trailers. We’d caught it at the precise moment the sunrise struck the Face’s wispy mustache, turning it quicksilver.
A swarm of dragonflies buzzed in constellations around the silhouette of the head.
We call that day the first day.
One of the first things we did was build an altar, constructing it from the rags and items still hanging from our bodies. We named the altar the altar of lives before.
We forgot our ages. Started at zero. We started over.
We didn’t see much of the outside world. Spent a lot of time amongst ourselves, as we had done over the course of our journey, learning things and passing them on to newcomers, and playing. Those of us entrusted to do so, looked after the Face. I was entrusted to do so. I do not remember the selection process.
I still catch myself imagining a stroll down the tight corridors of the Face’s small intestine.
So many things had been demanded of us. We had so little to give, run-down things that we were. The Face never asked anything of us. Its presence inspired imagination, activity, a sense of responsibility.
Large and sleeping and rooted at the neck to the ground, the Face’s chin—on its own as large as any of us—brushed the topsoil. The soft wind from its nostrils kneaded circles into the carpet of weeds around it. We trimmed until the carpet was gone and it was just the soft earth and our bodies around the Face. When it got too cold, we sheared off bits of its soft, downy hair, learned to fashion it into blankets.
I still catch myself imagining an endless plunge down the spiral of its throat, into the deep unknown.
We watched it through day and night. Sometimes it eclipsed the sun, other times it eclipsed the moon. Before the first season was over, we had instituted a cosmology. The Face seemed to command the stars and planets and celestial bodies, seemed to make them nervous, seemed to make dragonflies of them.
We grew closer. At the same time, each of us in turn came to think of oneself as the most qualified candidate for the position of Great Esthetician. Taking care of the Face was the only thing we had ever bothered learning, the only lesson the universe had ever offered us. Our sense of entitlement had nothing to do with titles.
In the early days, clotheslines were erected and beds provided. It was as though this same universe had all of a sudden noticed us out of the corner of its eye, had decided to extend us a proposition. People came. At first, we called them the Helpers. They brought us things, things we needed. But, as they never even so much as said hi to us, we stopped calling them the Helpers, at least aloud.
They never seemed to care what we thought, never seemed to care about what we had to say. Following their lead, we learned to feel similarly.
My altar of life before doesn’t tell you much more than I can. Our stories might as well all be the same, beat for beat, cast down a throat like a meal, all mashed into one.
Neither of my parents graduated high school. I have never been to a restaurant where they serve you, never been on a plane, have never been close to being on a plane. I didn’t know that you can have clothes and things delivered to you; I thought you had to go to the store to get them. Time licked all the flavors that passed me by, and the world held them aloft in a spoon out of reach. Others have expressed this, too, in their own words.
Fragments and interludes make up most of what I recall. Memories like old conversations with my body; things once told to me but which my nerves need a refresher on. Or the opposite, a gnawing at the inside of me. A classmate. My shuddering arms. Her asking me if I’d ever been out of the country and me answering Canada, via bus, with my dad, but only for a few hours. Her laughing. Her laughing filling every pore of me. Me not telling her that during those two hours abroad my dad stowed himself away in a men’s bathroom and later in a motel room—that I spent my whole visit to a foreign land waiting in one lobby or the other—and that when we returned stateside, he looked at me glassily like he didn’t know who I was.
My arms still shuddering at her laugh.
It’s memories of people other than me, other than us, that make me grateful for the time I had with the Face, grateful that I got to serve as the next Great Esthetician. Grateful for the fact that, for a while, we had achieved utopia.
That was then, though. Now, without the Face’s warmth, my arms have begun to prickle again.
Barrels of kerosene arrived via truck once a month. We would have to make them last till the next drop-off. We kept lamps lit, primarily around the Face (especially in winter, to keep it from catching cold), but left others on for those of us wanted to draw or work on crafts after sundown. It was humid in the summer and lonely in the winter. New plants grew and died around us year-round. Occasionally other things were left behind with the kerosene. In little parcels we’d find, for example, extra wood, which was always cause for celebration, as we rarely had enough to sustain us. The nearest trees lay at the edge of the field and were weak, always damp for some reason, and besides we never learned how to sharpen our tools well enough.
Other things we’d sometimes unwrap from parcels: matches, baseball cards, dolls, the rare book.
I always went for the books. I remember the important ones. Books about herbs and minerals and stuff. I went and learned how to make tinctures. In the glow of the sunset I liked to think I saw the Face suffusing warm with health.
We made love inside the Face.
It was our first time, though no one could remember whose. We brought flashlights. We lifted its tented lips and, with cold wet rags wrapped over our own mouths, ventured inside.
Once we had all draped over the undulating grooves of its tongue, the rags fell from our faces. We breathed in the contents of the Face’s body. We slipped into the dark crevasses of gums and cavities, never to be seen again. We breathed, huffed. We tossed. Eventually, fused into one composite morsel.
One of us said we were making tastes, not love. We knew how they really felt, though, what they were failing to communicate.
It was warm inside. We sweated out our toxins. Thinking back on this, I like to imagine the Face’s taste-buds tingling with our flavor.
I think about the secret underground life of the Face, its body. Did it like the food we gave it, did it have a healthy and regular metabolism? To be encased, to be surrounded on all sides, packed in—was it cozy? Were we annoying?
In a reverie I’m climbing up onto, and then into, the crook of the Face’s mouth. Poised on its bottom lip, I moisturize the skin beneath its mustache, which flakes off if it gets too dry. Doing this, I have to stand post a while longer, daub the popped blemishes with tea tree oil, then close up pores with great chunks of ice that numb me up to my elbows. Rinse, sanitize again.
The juices and seeds that I’d extract from the openings, I slopped it all into buckets. Mainly it was to be used as fertilizer for our gardens, which grew behind fences hitched to our trailers. Other times, it would be used for deep-frying foods, or any number of things.
Occasions called for different methods and outcomes. We fastened our lives to the Face.
Besides Esthetician, we had many positions. Masseuse, earwax-handler, hair stylist (for as long as the Face still had hair, anyway). All “Great.” We never did have a dentist, though, not knowing the first thing about dentistry or having in our possession any of the necessary tools. Our hope was, this wouldn’t matter.
Over the seasons, we started hearing grunts, other sorts of dissatisfied sounds. At first we attributed the noises to far-off falling trees. I think this was our denial coming into play. Then one day, one of us fell asleep against the Face’s neck only to be awoken by a deep grumble of displeasure. It reverberated through the person’s bones.
The Face was in pain. We scrambled to diagnose it. One visit inside its mouth revealed the source, told us what we needed to know.
My knowledge of tinctures allowed me to improvise. Items that were initially unfamiliar to us, I discovered to be antibiotics, painkillers, fever-reducers. I collected them in paper bags.
I crept into the Face, trying not to wake it. (We never could tell when it was asleep or awake, didn’t even know if it had ever been awake to begin with, its eyes perpetually half-lidded, irises glazed.)
I wore a wet rag, but not even this could hide the smell of rot and disease. I had to be careful to avoid sores, to not brush up against swollen gums.
I came to the precipice of its throat and cast my prayers into the pit.
Nothing I knew about being the Great Esthetician had prepared me for this.
One summer, the Face’s soft, downy hair fell out entirely.
We erected ladders and climbed up to the top of its head. We lay there, soaking in the sun. At evening we were called down for dinner. We arose to find its pate marked with the faded imprints of our bodies, in commas, figure-eights like starfishes, and letters formed from happenstantial conjoinings. The skin around the shapes was slightly darker, as some of us were. The Face had tanned. That summer was a hot one. It would be the Face’s last.
The Helpers came less and less frequently. Our wells ran dry, so we depended on their deliveries of bottled water. Things became dire. We were famished. Then, we began to starve.
The Face was in even greater pain. Its grumbles had escalated to wails. The sounds reminded some of us of sirens, and we shrunk into ourselves, clutching each other, lost in memories of our lives before.
The Face’s lips never parted, despite its wails. The ground became soft from its constant, tortured humming.
Right now, there is the altar of lives before, which—unlike everything else—managed to avoid the inferno. Graffitied across the odd structure are the words: “The I was the voice of the head, but we were the voice of the body.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it had been one of us, had maybe even been me.
Feelings of betrayal are confusing. Our ending had opened old wounds.
They came one last time, the Helpers. It was a small convoy, just two trucks. They pulled up outside our encampment. By now, the field was parched, scraggly with weeds. The Helpers began to pull barrels of kerosene out of the trucks.
We broke our vow of silence. We beseeched them. The Face is dying, we said. We don’t know what to do. We don’t need kerosene, we need medicine, we need doctors.
Please help us.
Our entreaties filled the air. The Helpers never acknowledged us.
As we stood there in defeat, we heard a great displacement of liquid, a wet convulsion. We turned to see the Face’s cheeks roiling, mouth working. Its eyes—closed as they so often were—seemed this time to be shut in concentration. Its lips sucked in and out. When the head reared back, the dry earth fissured around it like a necklace.
A tooth catapulted from the Face’s mouth. It struck one of the trucks with the force of an asteroid, turning it over onto a row of kerosene barrels. Everything burst into flame. The other truck caught fire. Our trailers, our clotheslines, the things we had made after sundown, followed. Then, the grass and the weeds.
Dusk came with the strangest collection of colors. My eyes puffy, I stared absently through the churning smoke. More colors than I’d ever stirred in my cauldron, had ever imagined as I’d tried, in vain, to concoct a cure.
We had each either left or died at this point. I no longer heard screams. All I was aware of was the Face, now just a great burning sun at the edge of my vision.
I sit on the spot where my life used to be and wait to be filled with humming.
A minute ago I went over to the altars of lives before and kicked at it until it collapsed. Now, with a wet rag affixed to my face, I stare at its crumbled parts. I make the stories blend together.
A strange thing, the landscape so altered. I’ve completely lost my sense of direction. Still, where I sit the earth is warm. I visualize myself as the Face’s hanging uvula. I rock back and forth like a pendulum. Dragonflies gather around me. My seat is the base of its skull, I believe. I try to find comfort in this.
The memory of laughter quakes through my limbs. Alone again, I am in a foreign place.
It will be okay, I tell myself. But the voice comes from somewhere else, might even be more than one.
Ian Kappos’ writing has appeared in numerous places, including Strange Horizons, Entropy, Witch Craft Mag, Luna Luna, and others, as well as been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Crossfaded in Narnia, his first chapbook collection of fiction, is available from Eibonvale Press. A graduate of the CalArts MFA program in creative writing, Ian currently lives in Los Angeles. Find him at www.iankappos.net or on Twitter @Kappos_Ian.