Forty-eight faces

Sarah Hilary

This face, I dunno, it’s kinda like Mr. Ed’s. I remember back in sixth grade, my pal Benny saying they put nylon thread in Ed’s mouth, to keep his lips moving. I didn’t believe him. They wouldn’t do that to a horse, not even for TV.

I keep going through the faces like they told me to. It’s like looking through a yearbook, except all the faces are old, even the young ones. They want me to pick a couple I like and a couple I don’t, from each sheet. The photos were all taken a long time ago, I can tell by the hair and the stiff collars on some of the guys, pushing their Adam’s apples up to their chins. One woman’s got her hand to her head, like she’s in pain. I don’t like to look at her. Lots of the guys look like gooks, but it could be the crappy quality of the photos.

“Can I get another glass of water?”

I’m putting it off, the choosing. It’s going to reveal my inner self. This test. That’s what it said on the clipboard when I sneaked a look. Like a dumb grunt, I’m gonna give myself away when I pick the faces I like and the ones I don’t. Not just myself, either. I’ll be picking for a whole bunch of us, for history, because of where I went and what I saw; someplace for someone to stick his flag, say how it happened and what it counts for. I know how this shit works.

These poor bastards in the photos… They’re all nuts, anyone can see that, but I’m not going to say it out loud, in case they decide it means I’m nuts too. All the faces are black and white, muddy-looking, at least that’s what I think when I see the first sheet. Black and white, but look at the red right here, roaring out of this guy’s eyes, so hot I can taste it, like a mouthful of bayonet.

I won’t choose this one, the one with the blood in his eyes. He’s not me; I’m meant to pick faces I identify with.

How about this one? Strong jaw, looks like he could take the pins from grenades with his teeth. Rusty whiskers on his chin. If I pick this one, will they think I’m fit, strong? If I pick him, will they send me back to barracks, to do it all again? I can’t choose him. He’s a liar. I see it now, in his eyes. Strong jaw, but he’s shifty. I wouldn’t trust him as far as he can spit those grenade pins.

You can smell the land on some of the faces, raw-boned, square brows set in furrows. Farmers, or coal-miners. Some are squinting, flinching from the flashbulbs. Most look like they’re in pain of one kind or another. I won’t pick anyone who looks like he’s in pain. Except perhaps I should; I don’t want to be a liar. It’s just I’m afraid they’ll twist a lie from my choices. If I could believe they’d get at the truth about me like this, get at it and fix it, I’d pick a hundred pictures. Nothing’s ever that easy, though, and these people think they’re so clever, that this test’s the best way to put right everything the bombs and bullets and green-red stinking jungle got wrong.

I saw the clipboard, I know what I’m talking about. They figure a dumb grunt like me’s not going to know enough to do that—read stuff that’s not for him, upside-down on someone else’s clipboard, someone in a suit with a white coat. But I did it. Asked for a glass of water and read what I wasn’t supposed to see.

I spent six hours upside down in a tree once. Not from choice, but it turns out I can do most things in that position—eat, sleep, weep for my mom; reading a clipboard was kid’s play. I reckon that’s how Mr. Ed learned to move his lips: with practice, and because he had no choice.

Deviance, the clipboard said, and genes. Stuff about the selection of love objects, friendships, disease, forms of death. The individual’s selection of diseases and forms of death.

I’ll have a bullet to the brain—thanks, Doc. Maybe with a side order of syphilis to go. Jesus. The crap they’re peddling in here’s worse than the crap they peddled over there.

This test, the Szondi test, they use it on delinquents and prisoners, and on diabetics and seminarists. What the hell’s a seminarist, I want to say, and what’d the diabetics do wrong? Szondi fled Hungary in ’41, that’s what they told me, but in my experience you don’t get much fleeing done in wartime. You hoof, you hustle, you go forward a foot at a time in queues a mile deep and two wide. Then they sit you down and show you faces—old young faces—and make you choose.

I’m supposed to see myself, in one of these photos. Without knowing what I’m doing. I’m meant to put my thumb on some poor klutz, like this guy with the Tarzan chin, and it’ll tell them I’m the caveman-type, likely to drag women around by the hair. I never dragged anyone by the hair. Hauled Perlman by his bootstraps once, when I couldn’t see shit because of the smoke and fire. Stopped when I realized there was nothing above the belt of his trousers. I knew there was something missing when I could move him without putting my back out. Weighed a stinking ton, Perlman, all muscle. Even half of him was more than I could manage. I was relieved, to be honest, when I could drop his boots and crawl away.

I guess these photos won’t pick themselves. Six sheets, eight faces on each. Doesn’t take a white coat to see they’re all sick, some more than others, but not one of them’s right. Which means whoever I pick, I’m screwed.

I saw this code on the clipboard, letters they’d blanked out on the sheets they’ve shown me. S, P, C. I’m betting S is sex; these tests are always about sex. P’s probably paranoia, or maybe it’s P for psycho. Can’t guess at C. Only C word I know’s back on base, flogging the guts out of guys like me, serving our stomachs up to the vicious bastards with bayonets, death coming up from the earth and out of the sky, no dodging any of it for long.

Maybe it’s C for Cong.

It’s not like I really have a choice. If I did, I wouldn’t be sitting in this crappy hospital drinking tap water that tastes of ditches, would I? Poring over pictures from another century. You can tell from their clothes they’re not alive any longer. I’m looking at photos of dead lunatics. They want me to pick half-a-dozen I like the look of, another half I don’t.

“Identify yourself”—that’s what they’re saying. Let’s see if you can’t put your finger on what exactly the fuck’s wrong with you. But I can’t. Neither could you.

Forty-eight faces, and none of them yours.

Except they’re all dead; I guess I can identify with that.

They don’t look afraid, not really. Not one of them looks like he’s ever pissed his pants in fright because a thing flew from a tree into his face. Bats, warm and squirming, like the sky splitting into bits.

From a distance, the faces are like animal print on the page, leopard-spots maybe. Up close, some of the faces still look like leopards, upper lips pitched like shallow tents over sharp teeth.

A rank, adrenal stink: my skin coming out in a rash of sweat. I sweat at anything now. Half the time I’m scared shitless over nothing, the other half it’s over anything at all. I scare myself, to be honest.

The language of choice—that’s what I read upside down on the clipboard. “What choice?” I want to say. “What language?” Most days I can’t make a sentence that anyone can understand.

Cameras make ghosts out of people. What they’re asking, it’s like asking me to pick my own ghost. One of these spots is supposed to be a mirror. I’m looking for myself, but I don’t know what to look for any longer, wouldn’t know it if I found it.

I got into the habit of not looking, out there. Last thing you want to do is catch sight of yourself, see your face full of fear or worse, triumph, when some other poor bastard is the one strung on the wire or spattered in chunks. This one time, the beach got blasted and the heat made fists of molten glass everywhere you stepped. You had to shut your eyes in case they looked back at you from one of those fists.

We take photos to avoid having memories, I read that someplace. There’s a photo they keep showing of a running girl. She’s naked and her arms are out, wide-open. First I thought: that bastard photographer had his hands too full of camera to scoop her up, too busy thinking about a bigger scoop, his photo on the front of papers, selling history, telling the world what it’s really like, out there. There’re worse photos they could’ve shown, of kids with faces missing, holes where their shoulders should be.

You can photograph pretty much anything, no matter what’s missing. You can capture any amount of loss. If they took my picture right now, I wouldn’t be here, not really. But there’d be something in the picture, something to show to Benny and the others back home. An Adam’s apple, or a piece of nylon thread. A hand held to my head, or a red stain where my eyes should be.

I think of that cameraman hoping to make history, and I think—what’s history anyway but a whole bunch of kids with the clothes burned off them, running towards men whose hands are too full of cameras, or guns, or their guts held like babies they’re scared to drop—too full to save anyone, even themselves. And I think, okay, I can do this.

I can choose between the faces, because I’m nowhere to be seen on the sheets and sheets of leopard-spots, muddy prints and mad stares.

Forty-eight faces, but none of them is mine.


Sarah Hilary lives in Bristol, where she writes quirky copy for a well-loved travel publisher. She’s also worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. An award-winning short story writer, Sarah won the Cheshire Prize for Literature in 2012. Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, will be published by Headline in 2014.