Michael C. Keith
There is no trusting appearances. – Richard Brinsley Sheridan
When she was six years old, Mary Corkum fell face first into broken glass while roller-skating. The accident left jagged scars––one-inch ravines––in her left and right cheeks that caused her endless embarrassment and shame. They diminished her self-regard, and even the esteem her family held for her. She had been a beautiful child, possessing everything most cherished in someone of her tender years––radiant complexion, curly golden locks, and eyes the color of polished tanzanite. Mary had been the center of her parent’s universe until a shard from a discarded bottle ruined her beauty. The Corkum’s were never able to look at their daughter the same way again; some of the adoration had left their gaze.
Although they continued to love her, it was not with the same intensity as when Mary appeared perfect to them. In their minds, something precious had been lost, and their disappointment was palpable to little Mary. She knew before her stitches were removed that they loved her less. This pained her and began to gnaw at her soul. The bedtime lullaby her mother sang lacked its former honey tones. It was flat . . . compulsory. Her father did his best to avoid looking at her at all. His once deep loving stares were replaced by elusive glances. It was if he feared fixing on her damaged face.
* * *
Things were even worse outside her home. In grade school, her facial lesions led to the terrible teasing and hurtful comments that children can so easily make. Her classmates regarded her disfigured face with a mixture of fascination and disgust. She was mocked with hurtful nicknames. One, in particular, stuck like a leach.
“’Hey, Boris, how’d you get so ugly?’ ‘Here comes Boris, the monster girl,’ ‘You gonna’ kill us, Boris face?’” taunted the boys, while the girls would just crinkled their expressions and giggled when they saw her.
Mary had heard them whisper the disparaging epithet many times, and she felt both angry and sad. From the first grade onward, she began distancing herself from everyone, including her teachers, whom she believed also behaved as if she were different, too. Having heard the boys call her Boris, one substitute teacher asked her how she came by that odd name, and when Mary just glowered at her, the young woman realized her mistake and quickly changed the subject.
In the schoolyard and in the cafeteria, she kept away from her peers, which only made her seem all the more peculiar. On two occasions, a girl in her grade attempted to befriend her, but Mary was suspicious of her overtures and rejected her well-meaning efforts. She preferred to spare herself any further indignities that seemed to come from any contact with others. People were just cruel, she thought, and so she decided to have little to do with them, contenting herself by drawing disparaging caricatures of those around her. The boys that called her names were drawn with crooked smiles, horns, and bombastic noses and ears, while the girls were given spindly torsos, giant feet, and ghastly hairdos. Disfiguring them with her color pencils made her feel less disfigured––less homely. It was her way of getting even for the malice she heard and felt from them every day..
At home Mary would sketch for hours to try to limit the hurt stemming from the widespread scorn. As the years passed, Mary’s skill as an artist grew as did the hideousness of the subjects she drew. She kept her work to herself, except for a few floral landscapes that she painted to justify to her parents the time she spent alone in her room. They took little interest in Mary’s activities and that came to suit her. The satisfaction she got from corrupting the flesh of her antagonists filled the void.
* * *
One day an unexpected knock on her door sent her scrambling to hide her drawings.
“We have wonderful news, Mary. You are going to have a baby sister,” announced her parents, gleefully. “How about that. Isn’t that great? Are you happy?”
Mary feigned delight, but in her heart felt little joy. When the baby was born, she remained unmoved, but as her mother and father poured all of their affection into the infant, her indifference turned to jealousy. As time passed, Mary grew more invisible to her parents, who devoted themselves entirely to the toddler.
One particular comment by her mother cut Mary to the core and filled her with despair and then rage.
“She looks just like you used to, Mary. She’s so beautiful.”
Mary ran to her room and wept. She then began to draw her family as abominably as she had the kids at school who derided her. She worked hard to capture her parent’s likenesses, and when she achieved the desired result, she sat on her bed and looked at them for a very long time.
Why had they forsaken her because of the scars on her face, she wondered? How could they stop loving her because of the accident?
Her sorrow was replaced by ire. If they could treat her with so little regard because of her tragic accident, they were bad parents and they deserved to be punished, she concluded.
On each of their faces, she painted scars far exceeding the severity of her own.
“This is what you look like to me!” she repeated over and over again, fury mounting in her voice.
With the intended effect achieved, she felt her anger begin to subside. She then painted her baby sister with the intention of scarring her face the way she had her parents, but when the time came to do so, she found she could not. Only then did she realize that she, too, loved the little girl.
Along with that epiphany came a loud scream from the living room. She pressed her ear to her bedroom door to determine its cause. Mary’s parents were clearly deeply upset over something.
“Look at me! It’s horrible! Oh, my God! It’s worse than Mary’s,” cried her mother.
“Me, too,” replied her husband, aghast.
Mary turned to the paintings of her parents and wondered if what she had done to their faces on canvas had actually come to pass. She crept to where her parents were and peeked in at them as they sat on the front room couch solemnly staring at each other as they wept. Indeed, their faces were marred with ugly scars just like those she had added to their portraits.
Rather than remorse, Mary felt elated. Now they would experience the cruelty she had. When she returned to her room and closed the door to block her parent’s sobs, an idea occurred to her. If she painted herself without the scars, would they disappear?
* * *
In less than an hour, she had a good likeness of herself . . . sans scars. When she looked at her face in the only mirror she kept in the bottom drawer of her dresser, her heart jumped. Her scars were gone. It was as if she were seeing her true self for the first time. I am pretty, she thought, fighting back tears.
Mary could hear her little sister crying in her room across the hall from hers. She had been doing so for some time, which was very unusual. Her parents never allowed the child to cry longer than it took for one of them to reach her. Mary went to her sister and soothed her.
“It’s all right. I’m here,” she said, caressing the toddler’s tear drenched cheeks.
Mary could hear her parent’s abject moans as she lay beside her sister, and for the first time she felt as content as she had before the broken glass had torn her life apart.
“We’re perfect,” whispered Mary into her baby sister’s ear. “Totally perfect.”