Ratface by Daniel Post
It was my turn to hold the boy down. The woman decided she wanted to change his face again. Tourist season would be here quickly and she wanted the boy to be the most pitiful sight in a town full of pitiful sights. She wanted the round ladies with colored umbrellas to step from the tour bus and gasp at the little boy with a head like an unshelled turtle. She wanted their purses to break open in grief and fill the little boy’s cup. He would be her masterpiece. And the ladies would think, as they do, that their money would help the boy find happiness – that they have made a difference in this strange land they are visiting. They would not know about the silk headdresses and gold brocade the woman would buy. They would not know about the blindness and seizures the boy would suffer. They would not know that you cannot find happiness in such a sorrowful place as this no matter how much money you have.
I grip his ankles on the hard wooden table. My bent fingers look like claws around his delicate skin. Sometimes I forget he is only a boy. The woman pulls his head off the edge of the table. The boy struggles at first to hold it up, but gives in. Sunlight plays on the pale of his neck, laid open for either of us to take. And this is where I think that I should just snatch the knife from the butcher block and chop his disfigured head from his body. It would be easier; he would return to me as a swan and thank me for my mercy. But of course I do nothing. I always do nothing.
The woman runs her hands over his head as if she is reading a fortune. She smoothes each indentation and crest across his crown. She creates a map. The boy’s head has been turned like a stone in the river. The left side of his face is folded in upon itself like a flower – each cascade of flesh a different shade of pink. His eyes hide under the broken ridge of his brow.
The woman traces the history of her work. Her face is without menace. There is no trace of what is to come. Instead she smiles down at the boy. She flutters her fingers through his hair. I am surprised by a stab of jealousy. I am surprised to wish that I were the one lying before her.
Her gray, hooded eyes catch mine. It is time. I pass her a bucket of stones. She gives the boy a drink from a black bottle she keeps in her waistband, and the boy bucks and wheezes. She wedges a stick between his teeth and tells him to bite down if it hurts. She places a wet cloth over his eyes and selects a stone from the pail. She holds it up to the boy’s head and decides on the proper placement. She kisses the stone with thin, hard lips and places it on his cheekbone. The boy flinches from the chill.
I watch all of this as if I am outside of my body. These are the things she did to me, invented for me. I was the first. I was the one standing behind her when the inspiration struck as she dug a trench along the house – as she noticed the pity on the faces of the tourists walking by. One quick snap from the shovel and my new face had begun.
Her hands are precise, unstoppable. She pulls a wet leather band from a bowl and wraps the stone to his head. She slips a stick between the loops of the band and begins to twist. The band tightens its slack and begins to push the stone into the boy. The woman twists quickly, fist over fist. Her face flushes as her arms strain against the tension. She slows her momentum, then holds the stick steady with one hand. Her finger follows the curve of the boy’s eye and wipes away a tear.
“Bite now,” she says.
She turns the stick slowly now and the leather croaks as it rides into itself. She stops and looks up at me. I am reminded I am part of this. We are doing this together. We hold our breaths to listen. The bamboo whispers along the slats of the wall. The boy’s skull is no longer soft and ready to accept change. The woman turns the stick one more time and then we hear it. A small snap. The break of an egg shell.“Perfect,” the woman says, “You are very brave,” she says tying off the strap and reaching for another stone.
Our field has one tree, but it is a special tree. This is the tree that will save my life and take me away from here. The wind rattles the clusters of dried pods around my head as I climb the boughs. It is a parched wind from the west, exhaust from the Gobi. The eastern winds are still months away. They will bring the rains. They will coax the river from its banks and I will be ready this time.
I climb to the top and look down upon the small slanted shack. The boy is inside, ten pounds of rocks tying him down. He can do nothing now but sleep.
Beyond the shack, the town is quiet. A loose chicken wanders the dusty road. A woman rides a bicycle. A few fires send trails of smoke into the darkening sky. In the distance the Flaming Mountains reflect what is left of the sun. At their feet lay the start of all my troubles, the Yellow River.
It is a dragon that starts at some place behind the mountains and cuts caverns through the rock. It pulls the yellow dust from the land and spills it across the empty plains. It swells and puddles and cuts this town in half. It is the one thing crueler than the woman.
One night many years ago, the river sprung from its banks and cut a course down our littered street. It swallowed my parents and left me naked in this wheat field. I did not know what happened. I awoke to a belly full of water and bruises along my arms. Across the field, a dead horse lay open. The air was rotten. And then there was a flash of gold and the woman was upon me.The woman was small, her long graying hair piled on top of her round face. She turned her head, taking me in, and the silken wrinkles at the corners of her mouth flickered back and forth from frown to smile. She pressed her cheek to mine – her skin like crushed paper – and folded me under her black and gold robe where I was safe.