by Laura Shay
Sylvie gazed into the cloudy, cracked mirror, scrutinizing her face in a way she hadn’t in a long time. She absorbed how her once firm chin wobbled a little when she moved and the new lines around her eyes, the signs of the inevitable creep towards old age. The grooves encompassing her mouth, like two parentheses, were getting deeper, a result of the way she gritted her teeth and pursed her lips whenever she was in public. Burning in the center of her face, her eyes were still fierce, challenging anyone to hurl the insults she had heard so many times before.
Torn Face. Scarred Face. Damaged woman.
Sylvie reached up and gently traced her scars, just as she used to do when she was a child and they were raw and new. Just as she had done everyday since they were healed enough to bear her touch. It comforted her, these symbols of where she came from.
The thick powerful curves on her cheeks.
The delicate crisscross on his temples.
The patterns as familiar as her own name, helping to form the images of her earliest memories. Her father’s face cracking open with sudden laughter. Her mother’s concerned expression and gentle touch as she nursed Sylvie during an illness. Their faces hovered in her mind, indistinct in their details, lost to time, but always bearing that stamp that said that they belonged together.
The youngest of eight, she was the last of her siblings to be cut with the marks of the family’s tribe. Her memories of that time were fresh and clear, as if she still were that lonely ten year old girl and all the many years that had passed since then were only a fantasy.
“Look at her smooth face! “ Seydou leaned in close, mockingly inspecting her face. He had an expression of artificial wonder, like she was a creature he had never seen before.
“Who are you? Your face says you’re not from around here,” his brother Boudo asked, as if she were a complete stranger and he hadn’t seen her everyday since she was born, one year after him.
“Why do you have to do that? You know me! I’m your cousin, Sylvie. Why are you being so mean?”
Boudo grinned wide, causing the scars on his temples to crinkle. “I could never be related to someone so ugly. Besides, you can’t be related to me. You don’t have any marks.” He turned his head to the side, and pointed to his cheek for emphasis.
“I’ll have my marks, just wait! My parents said that the Wanzan will be passing through our village soon. They promised.”
“Maybe your parents lied to you just to keep you quiet. Maybe they don’t want you at all. Maybe they plan to sell you to some rich man far away,” laughed Seydou.
Sylvie’s face throbbed with anger, her throat burned as she tried not to cry.
That would only make them worse, Sylvie thought, holding her breath and waiting for the cloud of rage to clear her head. But she couldn’t stop the flashing of her eyes, and her cousins laughed heartily at her, pleased that she gave them the reaction they were hoping for.
“Come on, Seybou. Let’s play football.” Boudo had already lost interest in tormenting his cousin, and turned to leave, but not before giving her one last disgusted look. Seydou didn’t even glance her way before running off to find the football he had constructed from plastics bags wrapped in twine.
Sylvie knew that the things her cousins said weren’t true, her parents loved her and that she was a member of the family just like anyone else. However, her isolation at the hands of her cousins filled her with anxiety. Was there a reason her parents were waiting so long to mark her? All her siblings and cousins were done by her age. What if the Wanzan never came and she was never cut?
If who we are is written on our face and mine is blank, am I no one? Sylvie worried.
She pushed her doubts aside. She would be marked as one of them, the jibes of her cousins would stop and she would never have to worry about knowing who she was and where she belonged again.
Sylvie could remember how proud she was of her new face in those early days, walking around with her head held high, still sporting the dark scabs on her face. Her pride surged when she remembers the event itself, how she confidently strode towards the place where she would undergo the razor, how she never once flinched nor showed fear or pain.
Everywhere she went, her scars spoke for her, announcing who she was and who she belonged to. Venturing outside the village, she could always identify relatives and members of her tribe by their scars. Their identities were written on their faces, connecting them together.
The familiar life of the village, nestled in amongst the people she had grown up with, wasn’t her destiny and a few years after her cuts had healed, she was married to a young man from the neighbouring village. He lived and worked in the capital, many hours away, but wanted a wife who shared his background. Sylvie remembered very little of their first meeting, only that his eyes were kind and that he assured her that she would be dazzled by life in the city and that the schools would provide an excellent education to any children they might have. Before she had a chance to absorb what was happening, she had moved to the city with her new husband, living with a stranger in a strange place.
She hated the city as soon as she arrived. The crushing sights and sounds, the crowds of strange people all around her. It all made her feel ill. Her cherished scars were on display everywhere she went, prompting whispering, hissing, sometimes worse. Her face spoke for her. Her identity written for everyone to see.
At home, in the village, her face spoke proudly. She was Sylvie, a member of the Ko tribe, a link in the chain of a tradition and family that stretches back generations.
But in the city her identity was flattened and perverted, the nuance of meaning in the patterns lost. Her face could only say:
Barbarian. Backwards. Ugly.
My tribe is written on my face, Sylvie thought.
She touched her scars, remembering her parents and her village, thinking about the web of people, past and present that had made her into the person she was. Her old fire started to burn again, filling her with a new energy. She sailed down the street, head held high, a fierce expression on her face, her soul of iron her only defense.
“Torn face!” hissed a nearby woman, incensed by her confidence.
“Go back to your village!” shouted a man with badly crooked teeth, loitering on the roadside.
Sylvie could remember the bittersweetness of that day. The sweetness of discovering her hidden power, the ability to ignore the cruelness of others. The bitterness of realizing that this was her life now and that her scars would always mark her as an outsider. She vowed that she wouldn’t let these ignorant city people make her feel shame for her family and the scars that bound them together. But the world was changing and she grieved for the loss of once was.
The clatter and bustle that accompanies an arrival home after a long day, roused Sylvie from the well of memories she had been drowning in. Looking into the mirror in front of her, she could see her eldest daughter, Martina, behind her, taking off her shoes and freeing herself from the straps of her overfilled backpack.
“How was school?”
“Same as always. I already finished my homework at school, so I’m going to go to a movie with my friends, okay?” Martina moved towards her mother and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. As she went to move away, Sylvie grabbed her shoulder and held her there, looking at her face. She had beautiful skin, smooth and unmarred, without a blemish or mark.
“What is it, Mama?”
“Nothing, my dear. I was just thinking about my childhood. How different it was from yours! I wonder sometimes, did I make a mistake? Raising you away from our tribe where you belong?”
Martina rolled her eyes. “Oh Mama, don’t be silly! I like visiting our family in the village, but I’m glad we don’t live there. Everything is so old fashion and there’s nothing to do. Can I go now? Or I’ll miss the beginning of the movie.”
Sylvie watched as Martina leave, her beautiful young face shining with the vitality of youth.
I guess she’ll decide for herself who she is and where she belongs, Sylvie thought. She will be her own person. Her family won’t be written on her face.