Only the pure may show their face.
That is what the book says, and all since the penitent have hidden their faces accordingly.
My own face is a sallow, sunken mess of age and wrinkles and it shames me in the mirror. I stretch the skin and the wrinkles vanish and I wonder if any may be so fresh faced under their masks. But it cannot be, for I have never seen a face other than mine.
I lift my green mask. It is not a bad face to wear. I am purity-6. My mask is permitted a small smile and six holes for air. There is plenty of work for a purity-6.
I clip it onto the implants behind my ears and breath out a sigh. The world makes much more sense through my green lenses. The lights next in my bathroom are not so harrowing.
I mount the stairs with heavy, ponderous steps. The magistrate sits behind a table in the examination room. He wears a chalk-white mask that bears a gentle smile. The masks of purity-3 and higher no not have lenses, so I can see his eyes and I can’t help but stare as they dart around like little fish. His mouth is covered by just a thin mesh. Magistrates are required to be purity-2, second only to purity-1 priests.
“Remove your mask please,” he says. I imagine what it must be like to regard the sin of faces all day, never letting it spill into his own soul. I shudder. What strength this man must have. The slightest ill thought and his own face would wrinkle and he would be cast from his office.
I lift my hands and unclip my mask. The magistrate makes no reaction as my face is exposed. My heart pounds and I try to still it, knowing it will only hurt my chances. I watch his eyes move like light grey clouds across a white sky.
He inspects every pore, every freckle, typing notes into a datapad. It is hard to say how long it has been. Time misbehaves when people are looking at you.
“Very well,” he says. “One moment please.” He reaches into the desk and my heart hammers. He removes a brown mask and sets it on the table between us.
A brown mask. Purity-7.
“But what have I done?” I stammer. “I work hard, I keep nothing for myself, I help the purity-10s.” It is hard to breath and I realize with horror that he can still see me, he can see the tears welling in the corners of my eyes.
His eyes flicker away in embarassment and I suck in a gasping breath, trying not to groan and line my face further. He could still change his mind. He could take the brown away and replace with a grey, or even the sealed black mask and I would have to wear an oxygen tank for the rest of my life.
I grab the brown mask and hurridely clip it. It is not so bad as that. It has the one air hole so I can breath well enough. It is thicker and rougher and it wears only the neutral expression of the Penitent.
My mask affixed, I can breath again, I bow to the magistrate and hurry out of the office. I push past purple and blue faced high-pures. I must not think ill of them, they are better than me. They have spent lives in service and what have I done? Cared only for myself, feeling remorse only for own fading beauty, and this is what comes of such vanity.
I hurry through the brown tinted chamber, my eyes blessedly hidden. I burst through the double doors into the morning. The sun warms my skin under my robe. I kneel before the statue of the Penintent and thank her for her life, for her writings and for her judgment. I stand and my face is sticky-hot from tears, but thankfully no one can see. No one can see.
I stand to leave but before I can I see a woman. I can’t help it, she’s just right there before me. She wears no mask. I can see her eyes. I can see her hair and the curve of her ears. I can see the fluttering of her eyelashes.
I need to flee, to turn and pray for purity, only I cannot look away. I can see her eyebrows. I can see skin stretched over high cheekbones. I can see wrinkles too, I can see creases in her skin, next to her eyes, in her forehead. A gray mask sits beside her on the ground.
She notices me looking and smiles. I can see her teeth. She gestures to her ears and I see she means for me to remove my own mask. I try to still my thoughts but I cannot help but condemn her. I will pay for it later, but she is not pure and any can see that. She mocks the Penitent and she mocks me. I lift my hand to wave at a purple faced purity-4. It may be a mark against me but I can’t stand by and do nothing while this…woman walks about so.
They haul her away, two orange faced bailiffs. She does not protest, only smiles at me as she passes. She will be burned. Her mask will be shattered and the pieces scattered before the Penintent.
The book says that only the pure may show their faces, that sin draws lines across our flesh. But she is a grey – a purity-9 and her face is clearer than mine. What does that say about my own purity? I was lucky, I realize, it was only the generosity of the magistrate that spared me further demotion.
I do not judge her. I will not so lower myself. Instead, I will be better. I will be pure as the book commands, and in four weeks, I will get my green face back.
Photo Credit: Flickr / M I T C H Ǝ L L
© 2016 – 2021, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.