Do you ever wake up and find that you’re less you than who you were, the day before? You look down at the actions that your hands are in the process of completing. You watch your feet as they progress with each step. But they’re not your feet. These aren’t your hands.
You don’t know what imposter these feet, these hands, this skin belongs to. The voice inside your head crumbles into self-conscious disintegration as it begins to realize that everything it’s been saying up to now has been a bold faced lie. You don’t know where that voice came from, the one inside your head that claimed to be you. The voice doesn’t belong to anyone. After a while, your thoughts become nothing more than the background drone of a radio, a voice from the television, a voice belonging to the air and no one else.
Today, however, I feel like me. Progressing well, I think. I recognize the skin I’m in. The mirror doesn’t frighten me today, either. Those eyes looking back at me are my own; but I don’t dare move the muscles of my face. I’m afraid if I smile or grimace, wince or jerk those petty ligaments and ribbons of flesh, I might not recognize the face staring back at me.
Which brings me to the beginning of my story, the very reason why I wanted to bring this collection of my thoughts into a tangible being. A host, if you will, for the creature that’s been creating itself into livid colors, sitting behind my eyes and wrapping itself around my brain.
It all began when I found a poster, well, a number of them, to be exact - hanging up all around town. Advertising a live show, starring a mind reader. Doctor Alister Mallows, renowned forensic psychologist and behavioral scientist: “Let him tell you what you’re thinking before you yourself can even comprehend what your mind is doing. Let him tell you who you are”, it said. The only person that’s ever told me who I was, that person would have been my mother. I gathered right from the very beginning that she was frightened of me. Hated me. Told me from the start that even though I was her daughter, I didn’t resemble her, not in the slightest bit. Even though she named me after herself.
Hannah. This name she spoke with dread, the only way I recognized myself in her eyes.
But she said I reminded her exactly of my father. I think it was with these words that I became obsessed with that very idea, an obsession that comforted me, if only for a short while. If I was just like my father, then some sort of a definition existed, detailing who I was. There had to be. I talked to my father all the time after that, we became inseparable. Thought maybe every word my mother had said was true. I found her fears to be true. I was exactly like my father, and I took great pleasure in knowing that I wasn’t just a narrow strip of thoughts encased in veins and flesh and someone else’s skin. I was growing up to be just like my father.
It wasn’t until some time later down the road, several months after I had first started talking with my father that my mother began to panic. She nearly had a nervous breakdown when I told her just how long my father and I had been in contact. I also told her many of the things we would talk about. Faces, the confusing flaps of skin that moved when emitting words, skin encased around eyes, skin stretched across the bone. We both wondered what these faces looked like without its covering of skin to hide behind, what words really meant, without the face to convey their meanings. My father had many insights on this subject.
My mother committed me to a hospital for some time; it was there that I learned that my father had been dead for many years. He couldn’t have contacted me, not for a decade, at least. He killed three people in ways they wouldn’t explain to me. He was labeled insane shortly after his violence and was shot dead by the mental ward security during a particularly dangerous psychotic break of his. That’s really all they ever told me. I’ve been released from the hospital for some time now, mind you. I still talk to my father from time to time, he doesn’t understand any more about faces than I do, still, and the two of us have given up on trying to understand. At least for now. I think these conversations will disappear, some day.
I don’t think I’m actually very much like my father at all, not anymore. I can see that it was only wishful thinking on my part because I wanted so desperately to understand myself. A definition that I could stand next to and claim. I don’t think I’m really like anybody. Not really.
But these posters, if we are to go back to my story, these posters advertised a brilliant psychologist, one that I couldn’t stop obsessing about. Another human that could read my thoughts. I imagined that Doctor Alister Mallows would be able to build a new skin around me, one that I could identify each time I looked down to view my body, each time I watched myself in the mirror, I’d know the skin was actually mine. He’d tell my why my lips pulled back the way they did when I reacted, he’d show me how the lines around my eyes moved and what each movement spoke.
I became enamored with the idea of meeting this psychologist. I became enamored with the very idea of him. I decided that he’d wear large black glasses and he’d always wear a crisp, dark blue suit and a cream colored tie. His smell would be an intoxicating mixture of an expensive cologne and the must of old books. His hands would be large and strong and always busy. Always holding papers and pens and reaching for grand gestures that would emphasize weighty words that followed a devastating diagnosis.
His face. His face, I couldn’t see. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that his face was inconsequential. Faces never really stayed so long in my memory, all of them skin stretched and sagged in confusing measures, its only purpose to hide the skull. Deep behind all of this, though, kept secret even from myself, I couldn’t help but hope that, just perhaps, his would be the one face that would stand out among the others and hold steady in my memory. And I’m certain his voice, the voice of Doctor Mallows would be a voice belonging only to him, intertwined in his words. Doctor Mallows would have a voice that didn’t just sit in the air and disintegrate into nonsense tones that I was afraid of and confused by. No, Doctor Mallows would have his own voice.
It made me excited, knowing that there was someone, waiting to be identified. This someone was the person I was supposed to be. I felt this new body forming, somewhere; it came into being the moment I first glimpsed these posters and read the name of Doctor Alister Mallows. At that time, it was the last week of March, I was doing my best to understand a job that my mother had found for me. I held down a job, I was a team player. Stocking shelves in a tiny grocery store, it was ideal for me they told me, and I agreed with them, as I never had to really talk to anyone.
When someone spoke to me, at my job, their words would hang in the air, unidentifiable. Everyone quickly learned that I didn’t understand them, and I was grateful, if not somewhat embarrassed. But I quickly ignored them in return.
My mother was pleased when I left for work. She tried to get me to understand what it would mean to save money, but I knew this job was just because school had ended. There wasn’t anything left for me to do, without school. I would pace when I was at home with my mother, or I would sit and watch my hands to see if they changed, and my mother would stare at me. Sometimes I would stare at the walls because the patterns in the texture of the walls looked like the same face to me, over and over again, and I found it comforting. The walls were flat and didn’t change. The faces were flat and didn’t change, that’s why I liked them. My mother would stare at me while I remained motionless, and then she would hide from me.
I think it was best that I wasn’t at home all day long.
It was never a simple thing, remaining on task in a place that wasn’t yet familiar to me, and I was always glad to leave that place. I think I left it more often than I should have. It was during one of these excursions, whether it was for a break, or lunch, or just because of a claustrophobic moment that left me suffocating, I can’t remember. I wandered out the back door of the store just in time to see someone plastering those posters of Doctor Mallows to the side of the building.
Just those very words at the end of the description of Doctor Mallows show - “Let him tell you who you are” - left me excited and restless, frightened and anticipating some sort of miracle that could very well take place inside of me. This meant that I could know me. I’d be a normal person with my own thoughts and my own skin and my own normal sensations of the normal life around me. There was no end to my obsession.
The posters were all about town, as I wandered around, that spring day. This very Friday, they stated. This Friday they told me that my Doctor Mallows would be at the local elementary auditorium. Wednesday, Wednesday was the day that I saw those posters - it seemed like such a wait for Friday to finally come. At some point, that Wednesday, I wandered back into work, and I think I had miscalculated my lunch hour, or my break, and I was scolded for leaving without telling anyone. The words were free-falling and of little consequence. I was lost in my own thought.
Friday wouldn’t come soon enough. The day finally arrived, however, and I remember, on that Friday morning, trying to communicate to my mother about my plans for that evening, after work. I told her that I would be treating myself to a picnic in the park after work, just to be alone with my thoughts. Something new that I was trying, because I knew that it aggravated her that I would stand around the house and stare at her and my hands and the patterns of the faces on the walls for hours.
She nodded and smiled, and I was proud of myself for understanding this expression from her. My mother had taught me long ago that I was to nod and smile instead of stare when someone spoke to me. I wondered if she nodded and smiled because she’d rather stare at me. I returned the expression and then left her side that morning, excited and nervous and nearly numb with anticipation. The day went quickly, so quick, in fact, that I have nothing specific to note of that day in particular. It began and ended in the same hectic swoosh of nervous excitement.
I made it to the elementary auditorium just in time, leaving work in record time.
The bleachers were withdrawn in the elementary auditorium, nearly every available space was taken. Everyone sat facing a little set up of a microphone and a few empty folding chairs. I scanned the room for Doctor Mallows, but didn’t see anyone that fit the description that I had built up in my head over the past few days. Off to the far side of the gymnasium, children played along the lip of a curtained, darkened stage. Disappointment began to brew inside of me when a tall man took the microphone and began to introduce Doctor Mallows. A small man came to the side of the man at the microphone. A short, round, bearded man with round, tiny gleaming spectacles. He wore an oversized grey tweed suit and his long, brown, shiny shoes jutted out awkwardly from baggy pants that were too long for him.
Was this to be my Doctor Mallows? He didn’t quite match up with the other Doctor Mallows that had formed in my head…but when he finally spoke. He finally spoke, and I knew that it was him. The voice was connected to his mouth as he spoke and his hands formed the very sounds that rounded and jutted into the air around me, made all the more powerful by the system of speakers set around the room. I sat smiling for the most part - understanding very little of the intent of his speech for so long, just dwelling in the space of his voice that was meant for me. I must have looked a fool. I repeated several of the words that I could catch, under my breath, caught in the narrow space of my mind, relishing the fact that these words were meant specifically for me.
He called out a member of the audience, a small, fragile elderly woman, and used her for a demonstration of reactions. Magnified her expression with a camera that was linked directly to a projector for the rest of us to see and directly measure with his diagrams of arrows and circles an exact diameter readings of her pupils. The show ended before I knew it. I found myself caught between an unsettling throng of people, bees swarming in a throng, first to the front to mob my Doctor Mallows. Several groups leaking their way out the side exits and around the stage, humming an incessant din.
The crowds thinned, sooner than expected, as I skulked between various members of the throng. I was a person that was easily forgotten. No one really saw me. This is my advantage. I waited my turn to speak with Doctor Mallows, my hands sweaty and clenched and strange, stuffed into my pockets as I waited in anticipation that left my throat dry and my mind void of all discernible tone.
They all eventually left.
The swarm of angry buzzing left me in silence as I watched Doctor Mallow packing away all of his various equipment and papers and notes. A few assistants and the tall man that introduced him even left the auditorium, without even a glance towards me. This is my advantage. My face is not one that is understood, my face is not one that anyone can see.
But Doctor Mallows saw me.
I approached him, eagerly introducing myself in a way that I think most people saw me. Pleading my interest in his work, detailing each statement in my head before the words left my mouth.
Doctor Mallows saw me.
My face didn’t seem a mystery to him. He didn’t look away from me.
I told him that I didn’t know who I was; I needed him to read my thoughts, explain my facial movements. Define the space that was me. His eyes widened behind those ridiculous round little spectacles, his lips pulled back to reveal neat little rows of yellowed teeth. I could only think that he might have been smiling at me. What then followed was a lengthy discourse composed of question after question. None of which formed any sort of a sense for me, but I nodded along in time with each statement, enjoying the movement of his voice as it surrounded me.
Behind the stage, he said, behind the curtains of the stage that was off to the far side of the multipurpose room, there were several more bags of his tools, recording equipment, journals of his and books of renowned authors on the subject. Would I be interested in pursuing the matter further, recording our conversation, probing deeper into my psyche? Nodding, still, I followed him behind the stage. There, true to his word, were several lumps of shapes of shadow, items of curiosity. Everything was hidden behind the closed curtains of the stage until Doctor Mallows turned on a garish, yellow light.
The room was paneled in wood; the knots and curves of the grain struck me as odd. They turned and swam before me, connecting at last into magnificent features of some unknown, inhuman creature. It took me more than a few seconds to realize that Doctor Mallows was asking me a question. He must have been repeating himself, because I could hear slender notes of impatience breaking through the tone of his words.
“What can you tell me about your father? Your mother? Hmm?”
I finally heard his words. I watched him bang around a few of his bags, rifling through them, grasping their contents and flinging various items onto a make shift work space of a coffee table and a few hastily opened folding chairs. I told him about my father. The conversations we continued, even after his death. The sense we both tried to make of facial expressions, the obsession of faces that the both of us still fed into, even though neither of us truly didn’t understand what it was that did make up a face. But yet we couldn’t stop guessing the true meaning of the mystery.
“Do you have any other conversations, with any other voices, other than your father? Do these voices ever tell you to do things, Hannah?”
Doctor Mallows was readying tapes, filing through them, taking out new ones and disgustedly throwing others to the floor. I nodded at him, but didn’t elaborate. The grain of the walls around me formed into a pattern that soothed me. The grain was humming words that I couldn’t quite pick up. I listened to their intonation, hoping to understand their intent. Doctor Mallows still fiddled with his equipment, his hands busy, distracted. I caught only the last part of his conversation, his words formed only in part, as the humming of the wood panels were beginning to overshadow him.
“…I can tell you this: you suffer from a disconnect of the muscles of the face and the impulses of the mind. It’s the connection of the mind that you don’t understand. The mind controls the spasms and jerks of the muscles - and - even though it may be difficult for you to connect that impulse and muscle when viewing your own face, it is even more difficult to understand how that concept is applied, how that impulse manifests from the brain of others, when watching others control their muscle reactions and thoughts of their own, individual minds-“
The panels of wood were now illuminated with the yellow light. Pulsing their own fanatic glow, spreading their features into the very same face that I saw in the walls of my home. A familiar set of features, I recognized them. Features that were presented to me, each time that I looked in the mirror. It was then - accompanied by the present drone of Doctor Mallows and the encouraging hum from the grain of the wood paneling - that I knew this to be my face. My face echoed this pattern. I took comfort in the fact that my face was not that of a human. Mine, merely an echo, the impression of thoughts. The face of the wood panels showed me exactly who I was.
Upon one of the bags of Doctor Mallows, discarded in a heap at my feet, there was a letter opener, sitting on top of so many discarded papers and books and letters. The blade of the letter opener gleamed up at me, winking in the reflections of the light. I picked it up, relishing the weight of it in the palm of my hand. I ran my finger across the sharpness of the blade. The doctor’s back was turned from me, his hands outstretched, reaching for more and yet more of his tools, connecting wires to shiny metal devices, bringing one piece of technology to communicate with another shiny metal device of technology, an endless coil. My Doctor Mallows entwined in the heap of coils, no end or beginning to coils. No end or beginning to Doctor Mallows.
“Doctor Mallows is entwined, wound, endlessly tied into your story,” the grain of the wood panels told me. The face of the wood panels, mouthless, blind, never moving, the same familiar, soothing pattern I identified with. The voice of the wood grain stayed the same even pitch, letting me in on its language. Giving me its secrets that no one else could hear.
“He will soon become lost in you. His meaning is your’s, and you are his meaning,” the face of the wood grain continued. “This is where you continue. This is where he ends.”
I took the letter opener and drove it into the side of Doctor Mallows’ neck, up to the hilt, just beneath his ear. The blade writhed, sinking deeper, eaten by his flesh. I was surprised at my strength, but I knew my hands were capable. I brought my other hand up to the hilt of the letter opener, holding onto the hilt, watching the blood as it washed down my forearms. My wish was finally granted. I knew the hands that held onto the hilt of the letter opener. The color of the blood that spilled across my hands held tangibility. Blood that had once been that of Doctor Mallows was given freely to me, taking the shape of my hands and defining my skin in broad, even strokes.
I don’t know how long I watched Doctor Mallows struggle to breathe. He turned to me, his eyes widened, his lips narrowed into flaps of skin that held no hidden message for me. There was nothing in his expression to read, nor had there ever been a symbol written here that I was supposed to interpret. Every muscle of his face soon grew slack, molded, plastic. A heavy mask that pulsed once or twice, then rippled in one final defeated throb. There was no mystery to be found here, no horror or joy, no sacred answer. But his face echoed the face of the wood grain as I was given a final key. One final clue. Mine was the face of death. It was only in the silence of death that faces could be understood.
I left Mallows, slumped over his technology and wandered out into the crisp night air. My arms slick with blood, the weight of Doctor Mallows’ blood a comfort against my skin. I was only the sum of my impulses. I understood this cage, this mold of flesh that held my impulses captive.
I was taken from my mother’s home, after that, and brought back to live at the hospital. Everyone here is either nice to me, or afraid of me. Sometimes both. I’m happy to be free of the responsibilities of living with other humans. I no longer speak to my father, in fact, I have not heard his voice for many years. Every once in a while I can find faces in the patterns around me, and they speak, bringing me insight of those, here, the other humans that populate this place.
Defined, at last, by a locked room that holds more comfort than anything I have every known in my entire life. But I refuse to have a mirror in my room. Now that I know whose face I have, I don’t want to stare at it.
For fear that I may redefine it again.