“I NEVER THOUGHT it would be her.”
Plato’s grandmother said the same thing every time they opened the window. She had been blinded early on in the days of the new regime, when taking the eyes of artists was more common than the rain. The violence had also taken most of her words away. And yet, every time the shutters unlatched, this single sentence emerged, to float in the air between them.
Plato glanced at his grandmother, then turned towards the small part of the city square still visible among tall buildings, weighted clotheslines, and rusted antennae. The statue of the masked woman was the only shade of white in a sea of dirty concrete.
Almost a thing of beauty.
Plato lay against the windowsill, looking down. His grandmother could not mean any of the passersby. Every woman walking in the street looked the same, the bones of their faces twisted to form the exact same flower-like mask. Hands covered under gloves, clothes of a similar cut—even his own healthy eyes had trouble telling strangers apart. The policewoman on the corner was not the same one as yesterday, judging by her height and the way her uniform fit her.
No, Grandmother had to mean the statue. Brave Lady Manya, the first to free herself from the tyranny of beauty that had held all women captive before the new regime took over and elevated them—whether they wanted it or not.
“I’m going for a walk,” he told his mother. She turned her head, hands still on the keyboard. She was afraid for him, he could feel it in the twist of her body. It had only been three weeks since he had been released from prison, after all. Grandmother’s silence, though, had drenched the walls of the house. His mother only nodded and turned the slits of her eyes back to the screen as Plato slid his tiny Polaroid camera in the pocket of his long brown coat.
He had not ventured far from home since coming back. It still felt strange, being free to come and go as he pleased. Not truly free, of course. The policewoman on the corner did not let him out of her sight till he had turned into an alley. He finally exhaled. Once they had taken you in, you were never really out.
Plato slowed down and began making his way through the back streets. It would take him much longer to reach the statue this way, but at least he would not bump into any friends or fellow students, their colorless, state-approved books clutched to their chests, awkwardly forced to ask how he was.
What answer could he give them, anyway, that his face did not already betray? Anyone could guess at a glance the long months spent in the dark, the chemical brain-washings that had left his eyes sunken and his mind prone to blackouts, the monotone sound of Oscar Wilde’s quotes constantly droning in the prison’s background. To think, they had not even found any of the photos they had accused him of possessing. If they had, he would have never gotten out, not even to be buried.
Of course, if he had gotten his hands on such photos, he would have died screaming, but knowing what beauty looked like. This was supposed to be worth something, according to those few banned texts that had survived, scrawled on the old Underground walls, or in the windblown bits from the burned museums and the massive book pyres. The lethal beauty of women before the new regime, the women who did not have the bone-flower for a face. The women who had launched a thousand ships, and the women who had been bartered away for their looks, their whole gender consumed by the pursuit of an abstract and futile idea.
These were not his thoughts, Plato suddenly realized, dread drying his mouth. He snapped out of them, only to find himself lost—again.
He looked around, but did not recognize the place. It had happened to him once or twice after they had let him out, first the droning of propaganda in his head, and then the blacking out. Usually he could tell where he was after a few seconds. This winding back alley, though, was new to him, all made of stone instead of concrete, an arched canopy shadowing its whole length. If not for the blue and red graffiti, he could have stumbled back in time.
Plato turned on his heels to leave, but then he heard the low stomping of steel-capped boots. He immediately recognized it for what it was—a police officer approaching the entrance, and then slowing down. His whole body electrified, he turned and ran further down the alley.
“Plato!” The voice was unreal, but still he whipped around to see who called his name. All he saw was a low, narrow wooden door on the stone wall. With the steps echoing nearer now, he ducked, pushed the door, and barreled inside.
He found himself in a small, walled garden. Three women sat around a stone table and a fourth kneeled by the door, shutting it after him without a sound. She touched her bare, bony finger to her mouth to bid him silence, before turning to look through the door’s cracks. He huddled to smother his breathing, so out of place in the stillness, he felt it would echo down the street.
But the police officer passed the door and kept going, probably till he encountered the same dead end, and then he turned back towards the main street. After a while, Plato could hear his footsteps no more.
It took the women ages to move again, to turn to him. The kneeling woman beside him opened the door and checked outside. He took in the whole of the yard. It was all made of different kinds of stone, grey, brown and white. As for the women, they looked eerie and unsettling because, under their prescribed state clothing, hems of illegal colors showed. The kneeling woman wore yellow, and dusted it off as she got up.
“They let you out,” she whispered. “Why did you come here? Is your grandmother all right?”
He turned towards her, not understanding. He looked at the rest of the women. Memories danced behind his eyes, just out of reach.
He had seen the place before.
“They will come back,” said one of the women, clad in red. “He’s probably calling for reinforcements. He barely looked around, so I’m guessing they already know we’re here.”
“Plato, we have to go. Now. They won’t let you go a second time.”
The three women got up in a hurry, gathering photos from the stone table. Yellow squeezed his arm, her intensity painfully familiar.
“Plato, move.” Yellow dragged him with her, and Blue shoved the photos under her coat. His eyes tried to focus, tried to see what they showed, but Yellow pushed him inside the stone house.
The door shut behind them and, in the half-light, he saw that the whole place was a ruin. Yellow let go of him and started digging through the rubble—looking, as it turned out, for a trapdoor hidden inside a broken cupboard. She opened it with both hands, crawled in feet first, and motioned for him to follow.
He did. Anything was better than going back to a cell.
A metal ladder descended into the dark. Plato climbed down, sightless, losing count of his steps, measuring time in breaths till his feet hit rough ground again. Yellow turned on a flashlight she had taken from a worn, leather backpack. The tiny light flickered for a few moments and then stabilized, revealing a tunnel made of layered bricks, the walls covered in empty metal frames dripping with black mold. Thick cables trailed on the ground, going nowhere.
This had to be the old Underground. Supposedly long-flooded, they said the Resistance used it to retreat when the regime got too close for comfort. He had never set foot there, himself, but like every angry student, he knew the stories.
Yellow started walking down the tunnel, flashlight in her hand. He followed, listening for the sound of steel-capped boots. They walked in silence on tracks built for a train that hadn’t been there since before the great floods, more than a century ago. When they reached an elevated cement platform, he stopped and touched her shoulder.
“Who are you? How do you know me?”
She turned to him, her face only half-illuminated by the flashlight. The line that formed the bone flower’s mouth opened and closed as if looking for a word. Finding none, she sat down, feet dangling over the rails.
“I followed you down here without questions, but we’re safe now. You have to tell me who you are.” He sat down beside her, legs folding under him.
“I do know you. I’m sorry.” Her voice was sweet, yet stained bitter. “It is a shock for me too, that they can take so much of someone away.” Her voice echoed then fell silent, as if she already regretted her words.
Plato waited before speaking again. “I remember the stone yard, but it’s a broken memory, not connected to anything, like a dream. But I do remember your voice. You first approached me at the university’s cafe, didn’t you? I was sitting alone, watching two students fight, and you came up behind me.”
“Yes.” Relief was palpable in her voice. “We were trying to find out what happened to your grandmother.”
“We think she knew Manya, had been with her before it all happened. Knew her before she got married to the General.”
Plato knew that his grandmother had been blinded as soon as the General had come to power, having refused to denounce and surrender her paintings. Her sentence declared that if she liked demeaning her own gender so much, the regime had a duty to help her to overcome her weakness. Plato shivered. He knew his grandmother’s story, but it was difficult to connect the unbearable weight of history to the faceless, mute woman ever-rocking in the corner of the sitting room. Yet she had been there, younger then than he was now. To think of her hunched form uncurled, standing up against the General himself, felt too paradoxical to handle.
Yellow seemed to understand his confusion. Perhaps they had even gone through that before—he did not remember. He turned to her, to let her know he was listening again.
“We were doing some research on the early victims of the regime, and ….”
“Doesn’t matter. If you get caught, it’s better that you don’t know too much about us. It’s the way we keep safe. We knew you were not a friend of the regime yourself, that you and your friends would salvage old weapons from the ruins and train in secret. We had seen you take photos in places you should not be. We thought of approaching you, asking you to join us, but we didn’t know if we could trust you yet. To be honest, you always seemed a bit too angry to fit our way of doing things. In any case, we started watching you a bit closer. This is how we found out who your grandmother was.”
“Why is that important?”
“We think her paintings might have had something to do with how the whole thing got started. And we wanted to make sense of it.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Knowing how it started is not going to change anything, is it? It’s not going to sweep the regime away, or bring back all the art they burned or wiped off hard drives. It’s not going to restore the books we lost and it’s not going to give you back your faces.”
She kept looking at him, not answering.
“We’ve had similar arguments before, haven’t we?” he asked, his tension fading.
“So how did you convince me to help you?”
“I didn’t.” She turned away from him. “But you agreed to help, anyway. A few days after, you let us know that you had found the information we wanted. You were to give us an envelope, but the regime arrested you before you got to us.”
The arrest he remembered. Soldiers, not policemen, grabbing him in the city square, in the shadow of Manya’s statue. Face on the ground. Kicks in the head, screams, the shock of losing control of his own body as others pulled at it, hurt it, injected it with tranquilizers. Faces turning away, terror breaking out inside him. The horrible feeling that life would go on without him. The shame of wanting to surrender, confess, repent, do anything to stop the pain—he, who mere moments ago had dreamt of bloody revolutions.
It took him a while to speak again.
“I’m sorry. I can’t remember talking with my grandmother about any of this.”
He would remember, wouldn’t he? Grandmother never talked.
“Perhaps your mother told you something?”
He opened and closed his mouth, before shaking his head. “I would never involve her. She’s not weak, you understand, but seeing her mother blinded in that way left—a mark.” Guilt kicked in, and he had to kick back. “Plus she thinks that women are better off not antagonizing each other for our attention anyway, demeaning yourselves with paint and plastic surgery. She shivers at the very thought of having a face of her own to look at in the mirror.” His angry voice echoed down the tunnel, but his rage was empty. He didn’t dare turn towards Yellow.
“What do you think?” she asked, voice cold but calm. “Are we better off?”
“I think … I think I am not the one to decide for you, and neither was the General. I am not naive enough to believe he did it for the women, that he cared about anything else but power.”
“Oh? So you do not heed Oscar Wilde’s warnings about the awfulness of beauty?”
Laughter refused to surface. “‘Plain women are always jealous of their husbands. Beautiful women never are. They are always so occupied with being jealous of other women.’ Oh, I have read First Lady Manya’s manifesto, on how beauty makes commodities of women and beasts of men, how taking it out of the equation would force our lust-addled heads to respect your mind and spirit instead. I have seen Oscar Wilde’s salvaged quotes embroidered and printed and sculpted on every fucking surface. And I thought that they made no sense whatsoever, even when I was twelve.”
He thought he felt her smile, but could not be sure. “Why ask me, anyway? How about you? Would you like a face? Even if it forced others to view you as less than human?”
“As opposed to now, that my humanity shines freely through two eye-cracks?”
He stared ahead. There was nothing fair about her question, nothing telling him what to do next. Nothing distinguishing right from wrong.
“Do you think Wilde’s wife was happy?” he asked. “If he was so fervent a supporter of feminine dignity, she must have been quite an inspiration.”
Yellow said nothing for a while. “Who knows?” she said at last. “Maybe if anything else of his had survived the floods, other than those hellish collections of quotes, we would have learned more about her. Maybe it would be her statue, and not Lady Manya’s in the central square.”
“I doubt that. She was from an earlier time, so you would need to give her a face instead of the bone flower to be historically accurate.”
“Yes, because the regime is all about historical truth,” she said. “You asked me why we want to know what really happened back then, even though it won’t change a thing. Well, I need to do something, and this is all I’m suited for. Not all of us can train with guns, like you did. Sometimes you do a thing because it is the only arrow you have left in your quiver. You do it, not because you have a brilliant plan, but because if you do nothing your soul withers and dies. And maybe, if you are lucky, your tiny act of defiance will weigh in the balance at the end. Or, to put it in your words when we warned you of the danger back then, ‘It’s better than doing nothing.’”
It didn’t ring a bell, but it didn’t matter. He believed her. “So maybe Grandmother knew Lady Manya. So what?”
“We believe the painting she refused to surrender wasn’t just any portrait, but a picture of Manya before she got the bone flower. And for the regime to want it so badly, it must be something we can use. They never found it, you know. It’s out there somewhere, hidden. We wanted you to see if you could find out where it is.”
Memory’s strings tugged at him again, but this time it wasn’t painful. Instead, it almost felt like a promise. His tongue stumbled upon a couple of false starts, but in the end he said, “I set out to visit her statue today, almost without thinking—before I blacked out and ended up at your door. I think I know now why.”
THE BONE FLOWER didn’t allow for a wide range of emotions. The first generation to be altered had been flawed in that regard: the experimental structure allowed women to emote freely and in the end, each face ended up unique again. The newer ones were much more advanced, so he couldn’t tell what Yellow felt when he told her his theory, but he swore he could smell her excitement in the tunnel’s stale air.
“Yes. Yes, let’s go.”
“I’m not sure,” he warned as they got up and set out for the square. “My memory of the past year is worse than flawed. I could be wrong.”
“We’ll see. As long as the trash collectors haven’t picked it up ….”
“As if,” he murmured. Trash collectors were too underpaid to work so thoroughly.
They started walking, but now they had a destination instead of just moving away from the alley. Yellow turned off the flashlight to preserve the battery and, in the darkness, memories flashed like the tiny dreams that ride the first seconds of sleep.
“They didn’t just let me go, did they? They wanted me to lead them to you.”
“It’s not your fault, Plato,” she said.
It didn’t take long to reach the main square, where an exit to the surface was hidden in the locked part of the public toilets. Of course, he couldn’t risk getting out in the middle of the city, but faceless, nameless Yellow only had to button up her dark coat, and climb the iron stairs. She had left him the flashlight and told him which two turns to take if he wanted to stay close. He followed her instructions and soon he was gazing upwards, through a rusted grate, at the feet of the First Lady’s great white statue. Above his head the citizens scurried about, rushing towards whatever backbreaking work or petty crime promised them that day’s bread.
He waited, trying to discern which of the women was Yellow, but the half-darkness of the tunnels had not helped him get a good sense of her height and gait. He fingered his camera, playing with the idea of taking some pictures from where he was, but decided against the risk.
So he kept staring at the First Lady’s titan of a statue, the salvaged book of Wilde’s quotes in one hand, the first words of her own manifesto sculpted on the palm of the other. If his fragment of broken memory was correct, Yellow would soon find what he had hidden the day they had taken him: an envelope squeezed between two decrepit benches, hidden in the dusty evergreen bushes around the statue.
A woman moved close to the grate, blocking his view. He held his breath, crouched lower into the shadows and waited for her to leave. He noticed that she was rocking on her heels—good, she was anxious, wouldn’t stay long. Then, behind her, he saw the steel-capped boots he remembered all too well, police boots, approaching her fast, and then another pair and another. The woman’s heels left the ground as the boots lurched towards her. He could half-see a struggle between the woman and the officers, and then his eyes caught it: the flash of a band of yellow, underneath the lady’s long drab coat.
Yellow fell on her face, the same face that could have been anyone’s, her gloved hand thrust towards the grate over his head. Before the officer brought down the rod to crush her forearm, her fingers opened and flung an envelope, sent it floating down towards him. The officer turned down to look. Plato grabbed the envelope in midair, quenched every regret, and bolted.
ON HIS SECOND day in the tunnels, Plato stopped and opened the envelope to look at the photo inside again.
It was not at all what he had expected. Instead of photo exposing the regime’s dirty secrets or Lady Manya’s sordid past, it was simply a photo he himself had taken inside his apartment, three days before his arrest. It showed a light blue tapestry that hung in their living room, the only thing his grandmother had brought from her alpine village down to the city, many decades ago.
He knew the tapestry’s story from his mother, but had never given it much thought. When the floods had drenched the world a hundred and fifty years before he was born, the survivors had fled to the mountains. By his grandmother’s time, though, people had started to reclaim the land from the waters. Grandma, then barely eighteen, was one of the first to make the backwards trek and descend to the newly drained cities, eager to be a part of something new, eager to help rebuild.
On the road, the light blue tapestry had been her blanket, her raincoat and her bedroll. Eventually, when things picked up and enough space had been recovered for everyone, even artists, to have a house again, the worn thing had become her only wall decoration. She had told the story to her daughter when she was no more than seven. Then the regime came, sweeping everything that went against them into the flame and the sea, and the tapestry was again the only thing left in his grandmother’s name.
It was such a simple thing to carry so much history: dark blue lines on woven, light blue fabric, depicting the moon rising over a mountain cave, two trees entwined, and countless stars.
Plato fingered the hole in his coat’s pocket and shoved the photo inside the lining again. A strange thing, resolve: fragile enough to be crushed by an interrogator’s blow, and cunning enough to hide for as long as needed, until a simple photo revealed it anew.
Plato had gotten lost countless times, these two days, but he always found his way and kept trekking upwards, towards his grandmother’s mountain. In the dark, slivers of memory returned, smelling of charred flesh: Yellow or someone like her in the university’s forlorn bathrooms, persuading him to go through his grandmother’s memories and look for the first woman she had loved, the one who was to become Lady Manya. And though he had never known the shattered old woman to react to anything save the opening of the window in the early mornings, once Plato had dropped his voice and asked her about the First Lady.
Grandma, have you ever painted her picture?
And up rose the blinded face, turning towards the faded, dusty tapestry of blue. Plato had hesitated for a moment, then took out his tiny camera, stood with his back to the window so that nobody on the outside could see them, and took a single Polaroid of the blue rag. He thought that maybe the women who had put him up to this could make sense of the whole exchange.
And then, as Plato waited for the Resistance to contact him, he had probably done something idiotic, he could not remember what—show the picture to a friend, think about it too loudly, breathe wrong—and they had come after him.
Half a memory again: waiting for Yellow to show up to the square so he could deliver the damn picture, the police suddenly charging towards him, sliding the envelope containing the photo into the gap between two benches, their iron-like hands on his arms, him kicking, resisting, and then all those memories that he could not, would not handle, for if he tried, he ended up panicked, crouching in a corner like a half-dead rat.
Knowing that Yellow was now going through the exact same hell, if she had not been killed already, did not help.
Plato did not try to remember anymore. He held onto the picture and kept walking the old tunnels, looking for Grandmother’s mountain village, fishing for hidden backpacks stashed by the Resistance. He found a torch in one of them, dry rations and tins inside another, colored fabric he could not stand to look at in a third. Another backpack held a makeshift map in a metal tube, so he made good use of that, and whenever he found himself under a grate he checked the stars.
In the end, Plato could no longer hear the city over his head, no steel capped boots and no long drab coats sweeping dirt off the streets. By that time hunger had exhausted him, and there were fewer and fewer backpacks to find.
It took days to reach the foot of Grandma’s mountain, and then he waited for night to descend before getting out of his hiding place. He had kept one precious tin and now he consumed the salted meat, to gain whatever strength he could. The final trek, ice-coated and steep, would not be easy for someone city born, prison ravaged, inadequately dressed and exhausted. But then again, he had no brilliant plan; he did it because he had just one arrow left in his quiver, and did not want his soul to die.
The moon rose and he began ascending.
GRANDMA, HAVE YOU ever painted her picture?
The photo of the tapestry helped him one last time. The constellations embroidered there suggested the direction, and the two trees were visible from a distance. However, the pathway to the cave had collapsed. Plato started climbing the frozen rocks, his hands wrapped in the colored fabric.
Snow began to fall silently, softly. He reached the top. He saw the cave.
He reclaimed his breath and, after a few seconds of indecision, he lit the torch.
The cave in front of him could hardly hold two people inside. What the tapestry depicted as a chamber was actually a small opening, well protected from the elements.
And inside, someone had painted a man.
Holding the torch high, he peered inside. The light made the walls dance, but he kept his eyes steady.
It was not a man, he realized. It was something else, something with the body of a woman, but a face of its own, eyes and mouth and nose. The face of a person.
He tried to see more, but the flame’s dance made the image flicker. Hurriedly, he took his camera in his free hand, hoping the bright flash would show him more, needing to capture it in case his hunger-addled mind had created an illusion.
He took a step forward, pressed the button, held his breath, and everything happened all at once. The flash lit the walls, the gunshot echoed across the mountain, the slope shook and rumbled, the rocks fell under his feet, the landslide began, his foot slipped, and he fell.
But as he fell, among the snowdrops, and the flames, and his own short gasps, he saw her. And she was everything he had been promised. And he did not scream, even as his back hit the frozen ground and the world went away.
I NEVER THOUGHT it would be her.
You never forget a voice when a voice is all you know of someone.
She stood over him, outside the cave. He glimpsed the photo of the woman in the cave in her hand before she tucked it inside her jacket. Her other hand held a small detonator, flashing red. She was not wearing yellow anymore; she was clad in the black uniform of a police officer.
Plato tried to sit up and the world went dark again. He tried to stand and only half of him obeyed. Realization cut through the pain, cold and sharp as the night air around him.
“I led you here.”
“You did.” Her voice was friendly.
“I never was released. You allowed me to go, so you could find the cave.”
“If you had broken when interrogated in jail, Plato, it would have been over months ago,” she said gently. “But you were too stubborn for that, too angry for torture to work. We tried drugs and you resisted so we upped the dosage, until the memories we were trying to retrieve were ruined, instead. Same thing had happened with your grandmother, and it was a shame. In the end, we had to find another way.”
And that was that.
“She is beautiful,” he whispered, managing finally to raise his upper body from the snow-dusted ground. The bullet had hit his leg, but he was not bleeding anymore. They must have patched him up, which meant they wanted him alive. Even his belongings—his camera, his backpack—were laid beside him. Carefully, biting his lip hard, he curled on his side. “She’s the only one left. Don’t let them take her away.”
She didn’t answer. Without the voice lulling him, it became so much easier for him to understand: there was no Yellow, no revolutionaries stashing backpacks in the tunnels for their own to find, no exit. It had only been them from the beginning, using him to find this exact place, grandmother’s last memorial. He followed the policewoman’s gaze and saw five more officers, heavily armed, placing sacks of explosives around the cave.
“Yellow,” he whispered, a man with half a foot on the other side. But she looked away.
Plato grabbed his camera, and her head snapped around. He closed his eyes, and pressed the button.
The flash was too strong, as always. For a split second she was blinded, and he lurched, screaming with pain, for the gun on her hip. And shot her, point blank.
Fumbling for her detonator and pointing it at the explosives took an eternity in his mind, but the regime knew their fireworks. Flames burned the night away and the cave collapsed on itself, on the five officers, on the last female face on earth.
WHEN PLATO OPENED his eyes again, it was still night, but the snow had stopped.
The body of the officer he thought of as Yellow had already turned cold. His mouth dry, his hand unsteady, he reached for a heartbeat he knew was not there.
But something was.
Under the fabric of her uniform, he felt the familiar texture of the Polaroid, and pulled the lapel of her jacket aside.
And there it was, his grandmother’s fabled painting, the one she had given her eyes to hide. He took it out carefully, trying not to stain it with blood, and looked at it under the stars.
I never thought it would be her.
Now he knew why the regime had taken his grandma’s eyes out, why they had set him on the impossible trail, why they had wanted the painting destroyed. For there, in the exact same pose as her monstrous statue in the city square, stood the First Lady. She wore, not a bone flower, but the face she was born with, ablaze with a smile. Her hands held neither books nor manifestos, but reached out to the world, opened wide.
It was the most beautiful picture on earth, the last beautiful picture, but this was not its only strength. For if, three decades after posing for Grandmother in a mountain cave, stern Lady Manya had chosen the exact same pose to present to the General’s sculptors, then her titanic, intimidating statue, the very face of the regime, hid a silent scream.
Perhaps a scream loud enough to start a revolt.
Plato stood and braced himself among the rocks. Now, for anything like that to even cast the shadow of a chance, he first had to stay alive. He had to leave before the rest of the armed forces came. He would have to place the photo carefully in the map’s metal case and scribble the truth on the back, in as few words as he could. He would put the case in the backpack. He would crawl inch by inch, and hide, and nurse his wounds till he was well enough to find his way to a city—any city where half the people had no faces, but silently screamed inside.
He might make it or he might die hidden in the mountain, backpack clutched in his hand for the next fugitive to find. One way or another, someone, sometime, in a few days or a few years, would know that the General’s wife had not wanted a bone flower for a face, and had tried to tell the world the only way she could. The secret would be out. Maybe, if there was any luck left in the world, her tiny act of defiance would weigh in the balance at the end.
He took a long last look at the Lady’s brilliant smile, and started his triumphant crawl.