The Things With Faces He Knew

An outline of a head containing a brain.

by Sophie Guan
Art by Catherine Hwu
Issue: Phosphene (Summer 2019)

They came for the intellects on the dark night. Matt was asleep. Those that could read, those that could write and those that could challenge the government were hauled off into the cellars where, after the muzzles flashed and the sound echoed, their bodies would fall. A week ago, Matt had burned his books and threw away the ink and feather he had spent much of his fortune on. When the soldiers stormed through his house and found nothing incriminating against him, they left him alone. They took his father and his sister, both of who refused to follow Matt and instead defended their trunk of tattered pages with their thin fragile bodies draped over the wooden boxes like rugs. The next morning as the bell tolled and the workers hammered up the public guillotine for the queue of chained citizens, Matt packed his things into a sack. He had bought himself some time but not enough. It wouldn’t be long before the soldiers found his name on the school registration and came for him.

He walked past the Fifth cellar. They were rolling out carts of unmoving objects with faces he recognized despite their tattered appearances: Miss Grace from next door, Charlie the boy to whom he taught the alphabets, Miss Finch the daughter of the man who ran the city’s brightest flower shop, Mister Woodrow from whom Matt bought his parchments, and Buck the stray dog whose home was the janitor’s closet in school. He saw his mother too. Her pale arm dangled off the side of the cart. He wouldn’t have recognized it if not for the small piece of Myrtle enclosed in the ring on her finger. When the cart rolled past him, it fell off and made a soft clink against the dirty blood-soaked cobblestones. He stared at it for a moment before bending down and putting it in his pocket.

Between where he stood and the crack in the city wall was a tall guillotine under whose towering shadow laid a gathered crowd. Matt stopped and looked up. The glint of the blade, newly washed and prepped for the occasion as it was, dug into his eyes. Blinking away, he thought he saw Mister Finch, whose face was sweaty and red underneath a battered straw hat, looking down the line of bounded prisoners. Like a solemn funeral procession, the black hooded heads shuffled closer and surely toward the gleaming blade. Mister Finch seemed to be searching for someone. Matt saw his sister’s white floral dress standing in stark contrast amid the gray and the tattered maroon of the other people in line. He paused for a brief moment and thought about the distance between him and her and him and the crack in the wall. Could he save her? Matt turned, hesitated, and headed toward the wall.

Outside the wall were fields of wild grass and looming trees. For the moment, he was out of the watchtower’s careful eyes but as soon as he stepped into the field, like sparrows they would pick him off. He could take the roundabout but safe dirt path to escape the watchtower’s eyes or he could make the dash for the forest. There was a certain exhilaration when he made up his mind. Matt shouldered his pack and ran. Nothing happened; he counted the three seconds. Then the rifles began firing. Matt rushed across the field in twists and turns, trampling the flowers and grass beneath his feet in his haste to escape. A lucky shot made its mark on his thigh and tore through his skin like a delicate paper cut. From the wound, red spilled unevenly until it drenched his right leg. The pain didn’t register until he was deeper into the forest and the adrenaline and exhilaration, like the cold biting wind, began wearing off.

The nearest safe haven was a city called Juven a thousand and fifteen kilometers to the north. Matt tied up the wound and shouldered his sack again. He could start a new life there; a peaceful one where he could pursue what he wanted without fear and put his knowledge to use. He could be a teacher, a writer, perhaps even a spy if he tried hard enough. He could potentially be the key to downfall of the government. Matt didn’t understand why his family refused to leave.

They came for him two days later. He heard them as he was undressing his infected wound with a new piece of cloth torn from his sack. In the moldy tree trunk he crawled into, he laid still and breathed only the faintest as the soldiers, half a dozen of them by the sound of their voices and their boots, thundered past. The boot steps faded along the fake trail heading east he made yesterday before going to sleep. Matt wondered how they found him. Did his sister give him up? She was always too soft. Or maybe it was Mother for she sometimes talked in her sleep. Or was it his father? The old man had never liked him anyway.

If not for the eight marks he made on the piece of parchment in his sack, Matt would have lost count the passage of time. His feet carried him onward along the endless forest with only thoughts to accompany him. He was conservative with his food but he was nonetheless down to a block of moldy cheese and a piece of soggy bread soaked by morning dew. Matt had run out of water. On the ninth day, Matt finished reading the book he took from his sister’s secret stash hidden beneath her mattress. He didn’t understand why the prince chose to save the doomed city. He could’ve run away by himself but he didn’t, and the world exploded along with the city he couldn’t save. His sister said it was valiant of the prince and that the book had made her cry. Hesitantly, Matt decided to read it again.

Matt knew he was getting closer when he found a stream snaking its way through the heart of the forest. He greedily drank his full, filled up his canteen and took a quick bath. Carefully, he washed away the grime from his wound and wrapped it back up. He didn’t dare stay longer because there might be soldiers searching along the path of the stream for him. From a distance away, he followed the winding stream cautiously. When night fell, so did he but it was not his mental strength that first gave out but rather his wounded leg. He sat down heavily against the trunk of the tree. The soaked cloth came off, revealing flushed warm skin around the wound. When he felt against his forehead with a cold drenched hand, he thought it was warmer than usual as well.

He reapplied the cloth and slept. They found him a while later as he was walking past the patch of mushroom that seemed to glow in an enchanted blue beneath the sunlight; his leg was throbbing uncomfortably; he dragged himself on a limping escape. They laughed; he was hauled up by the collar of his ruined shirt; the soldiers locked and loaded the metal barrel against his temple. His sister screamed out his name; his father pled; somewhere, his mother’s distorted cries came through. Matt breathed in and out and in and held it, his eyes wide and taut in fear, and for the first time the knowledge he sucked from the books failed him as the screaming and the pleading and the cries forced him to draw blanks. Matt woke up in cold sweat. His leg still throbbing in a way that reminded him of the time his mother had accidentally ran him over with an empty barrel. The screams faded away.

Matt picked up his things and set off again. The tunnel that he came across was the first sign of civilization in ten days of long walks and drenched campfires. The abandoned railroad was covered in greenery and adorned with white and yellow flowers. The wooden planks in between the tracks had been through so much rain and torment that they had long become one with the rocks they once laid atop. By the tracks was a wooden sign pointing into the tunnel. Juven, it read, four kilometers. He ducked into the tunnel to escape the heat. The cool crisp wind was a refreshing change, carrying the sweet fragrance of nectar. His hands were caked with dried blood. They were rough like scabs. He tried to scrub it away to no avail. Against the brick wall, Matt sat down heavily, feeling his bone creaking like the hinges of his old wooden door whose front was marred by scars and crevices filled with dirt that sometimes, in the spring, small seedlings would grow only for his father to snip them off. He needed to get up and go, but he was so tired and all he wanted to do was to eat and sleep. His father thundered in his weakened hearing: you have no will. How can you call yourself a man if you cannot stand for what you believe in? Matt wished the annoying old man was here now because he would drag Matt up by his arm with his bony fingers and usher him along the tunnel to a certain freedom.

Matt’s gaze fell on the white flower that sat beside him. It was so small and barely any sun reached where it stood. He could hear his sister’s soft gasp as he plucked it off its stem and held it up to his eye, twirling it with his fingers. He laid it in his dirty palm. Whiffs of its pleasant scent cloaked his weary body as he leaned in closer. He surrounded himself with it until the sound of boots trampling the peace stumbled through the opening of the tunnel. Matt could see their dark silhouettes against the glaring sun and knew that in a brief moment, after the eyes beneath the caps adjusted, they would see him. He hesitated; he had five seconds to move. There were boxes of crates just a few meters away. If he hurried, he could get behind them before they see him. It would take him four seconds to get to freedom but it would take him none to stay. He had to take the flower too, or it would die where it laid but what could he do with it on the run? It was already dying beneath his very eyes. He sat there and he waited for the soldiers to see him. They did. With dull shouts, they lined their rifles up as if the pristine flower gripped tightly in his hand was a weapon with the potential to defeat the government. They fired three shots and he could feel them ripping into him. His hands curled around the flower and—

Matt jerked awake. The knocking persisted on the door. His feet touched the ground as he got out of his bed, still in his sleep wears, and opened the door. Five soldiers barged past him and right into the house until it was just the last soldier with a golden badge over his chest and a face he didn’t recognize.

“By the decree of our esteem leader,” the man in charge said in a high nasally voice that didn’t match his clean pressed uniform. “we are conducting a thorough search for traitors and spies.”

Matt’s family knew what they were after: the intellects. Those that could read, those that could write, and those that could challenge the government would be hauled off into the cellars where, after the muzzles flashed white and the sound echoed, their bodies would fall. Woken up by the commotion, his father and sister were dragged out of their room by the soldiers. The wooden chest of books was found underneath his father’s bed and the scattered ones were torn from his sister’s nightstand.

The soldiers dumped out the books and the man in charge pulled out a box of matches. He lit the first one with a strike. It was tapped to the end of a cigar he pulled out of his other pocket. He breathed. A soft pale mist filled the air. The soldiers hauled in a bucket of fuel sloshing in its blackened container.

“No, please!” his sister cried. She scrambled forward. Her white dress dragged across the floor.

They forced her back. Matt almost sprung forward if not for his father’s warning glance. The hand of the soldier pressing on his shoulder firmly. It was his father who betrayed his words first and launched himself at the man in charge before the soldiers could drench the books with fuel. Before he could even get within arms reach of the man, one of the soldier grabbed him. They hauled him back. A glint of a small gun flashed in the soldier’s hand. A corpse hit the ground. Matt’s sister cried.

The two of them were escorted into the jail after they set fire to the books. The corpse with a face he knew burned. His sister was still crying when they were thrown in. They bumped into the other scared prisoners in the cramped cell. None of them tried to comfort her; they all had their own share of fear and anguish. The feeling of it was permeated his core. Matt reached out, plucked her off the dirty floor, and gently pulled her closer.

“It will be okay,” she said.

He said nothing.

They came for his family first on the brightest morning. The next morning as the bell tolled, the workers hammered up the public guillotine for the queue of chained citizens. She was the first to go. He knew because he was right behind; through the tears in the black hood that smelled like blood and fever, he followed the pristine white dress up the gallows to a certain freedom.