A long brownish-red mark runs along his gaunt face, from the right cheekbone to the bridge of his nose and all the way diagonally up to the corner of his temple. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when his face was like that of a commoner and his tan skin was at peace. Though fine lines defined his forehead and harsh pink spots stained his cheeks without order, he blended in with the ordinary. Now, there is not a person who passes him that can forget his violated face or more specifically, his unsightly scar.
The scar didn’t grow in stages like the stain of an ink drop does on a piece of cotton cloth. It was imprinted on his slender face in a fraction of a second and has stayed with him since. When it first appeared, it didn’t look like it does now. It seemed as if his skin cracked open and divided his face in two. Blood oozed continuously without stop.
What happened after remains in his memory in fragments, much like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together to form a whole, no matter how hard you try. The only thing he remembers with certainty was a blurred white coat closing in on him until all the light seeped out. When he woke up, the first thing he noticed after the blinding flashes was his reflection on the metallic surface of the drip stand by his bed. In it, he saw the fine work of a seamstress on his ripped face. It took a while for the imprecise bright red line to slowly turn into a sorrowful shade of maroon before darkening further into the color that it is now.
Not many care to know the story behind the scar. Of the few who ask, none has ever come close to knowing the truth. He simply continues his deafening silence, the only sound that now escapes him, and sits motionlessly while looking blankly into the distance, as if unaware of the words that were just uttered.
Every now and then, in the solitude that has engulfed him, the past flashes vividly in his eyes as if it were yesterday. In the still darkness at night, he can see her standing just a few steps away with the rusted scrap of metal in hand, clasped tightly in between her vengeful fingers. He can see her eyes consumed with rage, blue-black from the force of his knuckles. He can see the burns of his cigarettes tattooed on her dark lips that he wanted shut, except they are screaming with anguish as she charges at him to repay her debt to herself.
She sat on a soft-cushioned chair in front of the dresser and looked at her reflection in the mirror. The morning light seeped through the gray mesh curtains and lit up the room. The yellow rays warmed her skin and defined the lines on her forehead and the outer corners of her eyes. She looked on into the mirror and saw in it a reflection she no longer recognized.
She was aware that the woman in the mirror looking right back at her was herself, but she also knew how mirrors work, how they really work. They show you who you are when you are inverted, or what you pretend to be with all the layers of makeup caking up on the surface of your skin, concealing what is beneath, concealing you. Worst of all, they make you believe you are someone you are not, so that if your replica passes by on an empty street, you will walk on without faltering.
When you look into a mirror, you are never really looking at yourself. It’s because your eyes dart from the slightly smudged eyeliner at the tip of the wings you drew, to the red stain that leaked onto your teeth, and to the small strand of hair rebelliously sticking out at the side of your head. It’s because when you look into a mirror, your eyes never meet your eyes.
She gathered all her courage amid her veins crippled in fear and met her gaze on the silvery reflective surface, overlooking for the first time the things that did not matter, ready to confront the stranger she has become.
“May I know what you’re doing Sir?”
“But you aren’t using any brushes.”
“So you don’t paint?”
“Aye, I do paint. I can paint the skies, the earth, and everything in between. I can paint a portrait of a fine young damsel and recapture a starry night on a plain white canvas. And I paint all these not with a brush, but with a quill every commoner possesses but never fully utilizes. To tell you the truth, I can do far greater things with a quill than when wielding a brush; I can bring to life any color I choose using just one; I can make rain pour down whenever I please on a perfectly fine day with just a few extra strokes of ink. And my paintings are more than just two-dimensional visuals confined to the corners of a canvas; they are words engraved on paper that transcend time and space and become etched on hearts and minds; they are words whose essences animate and dance like the flames of burning wood and flow like the waters of a stream. And my paintings cannot be perceived solely through the human eyes, but require the combined powers of all the senses and the mighty mind. So aye, I paint pictures, but with words.”
At every waking moment, she found herself peering through the gaps in between the cylindrical steel bars. And each time, she saw a patio fully adorned with flowers. She had always loved the roses and the jasmine, particularly their scents that lingered in the air throughout the day. But at times, the smell of freshly-cut grass drowned the aura and left behind a rustic but nevertheless pleasant air.
A few feet in front of her stood a white tea table surrounded by dainty white chairs. They sat idle on the patio for most of the day, except for an hour or two before sundown.
She saw them every day. The man with a cane always appeared first and took his spot on the table by the potted conifer. He usually sat there deep in thought, and gaze fixed on the horizon. Then the old woman would come out with a plate full of cookies and take a seat right beside the man. They sometimes liked to chat, but mostly dwelled in silence. And when the bright orange sky darkened into a light shade of violet, they would go back inside, leaving her alone again on the patio.
She spent her days on the steel railing looking out at the garden, the only world she knew. She was always observing this world of hers change. She liked watching the corners of shadows diverge and morph into more undecipherable figures. She liked listening to the sudden rumbles of the seemingly calm sky. And she rejoiced with a melody no ears were gifted enough to hear at the sound of pouring rain. These gave her hope, hope for a future.
And one day, as she was singing to herself, it happened. He had heard a melodious voice and came searching for its owner. And she was completely taken aback when she saw a familiar stranger appear out of the blue sky and descend on the tea table. He chirped. She looked away coyly. He chirped again, but when he didn’t get her attention, he sang her tune. She finally gave in and looked at the stranger standing before her and sung along. They looked into each other’s eyes for a long while before he flapped his milk-white wings and flew away. She knew she would never see him again.
She looked down at her dry, scaled feet that had grown tired from standing on cold steel. She longed to spread her wings and take flight, and never look back at the cage she was forced to call home.
She took her seat and sat among the hundred other pupils who had their faces buried in their books in an optimistic but futile attempt at developing eidetic memory. It was almost half past eight in the morning and Jane’s eyelids were as heavy as they could get. She opened a can of Mr. Brown dark coffee and chugged it down instantly hoping the caffeine would keep her alert. Minutes later, the question booklets were passed. Everyone in the room raced to turn the first page and read the questions whose answers would determine their lives, their fates. Jane did too. She traced her finger across the first question and read aloud the words in her head:
“Explain the notion of ‘free will’ and discuss how individuals exercise their free will in their daily lives.”
“Easy,” she thought.
She picked out one of the blue ball-point pens Mrs. Davis had asked everyone to bring and spun it around her fingers. She liked the feeling of having it in her grasp, moving around the way she wanted it to. But she felt a tinge of uneasiness.
Jane read the question again, and again.
“Free will is the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate,” she repeated to herself.
She had studied the textbook religiously and would have been a fool to not know what it is, but she still couldn’t explain how people exercise their free will. She thought harder, but to no avail. She let go of her pen and watched it bounce before it fell flat on her desk. The clock was ticking. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. And then it hit her.
She sat up straight and looked around the room quizzically. Everyone else had their heads tilted down and eyes fixated on their papers. They looked like robots hardwired into doing the same thing, writing the same words. She let out a laugh.
“How could I have been so stupid?” she exclaimed.
One of the invigilators gestured her to be silent, but she took no notice. It was so clear to her now. There was no such thing as free will.
Then everything came rushing back – the hours she had spent doing projects and writing papers, the extra tuitions, the sleepless nights, the ballet classes, this exam she was sitting, and the other things she had to do. She had nodded to the demands of her parents and teachers thinking it was a choice she was making when in fact, she had simply been following through on the decisions they made for her. She was only deluded into thinking she had a choice, into thinking she had free will. But now, everything was so crystal clear.
It had hardly been fifteen minutes into the exam when Jane got up and left the hall. Her paper lay on her desk, untouched by the nip of the blue ball-point pen that inked all the other papers.