One Sunday afternoon a family was digesting its midday meal and having a desultory debate about which of the many dishes they’d just put away was chiefly responsible for their present lethargy. From one corner of the living room, sitting in an armchair in front of the screenatron, grumpy old Uncle Misio had turned his back to them. A redheaded girl named Segal’Ena was sitting at the surly man’s unwashed feet, covering her nose. Uncle and niece were watching a show in which people told supposedly true tales about their calamitous lives. The competition lasted for months, and each week the public voted not for the best or most distressing episode but for the tale that seemed the most truthful. On this particular Sunday, a former minister of education was describing in great and morbid detail how the protagonist of his story – him – had decided to poison his secretary, who was going senile, before the masseuse who’d seduced her screwed her out of every last penny she had. Resting a bunion on the girl’s shoulder, Uncle Misio wondered how the politician was able to conceal so perfectly whether he was telling the truth or not. On the other side of the room, the family was a still life of bodily satisfaction and emotional disgruntlement. In the silence, Segal’Ena whispered to her uncle that she was sure that the former minister was lying. In spite of the uncle’s dismissive snort, a couple of months later detectives for the show presented an autopsy report stating that the secretary hadn’t been poisoned but had simply electrocuted herself with a toaster. Soon everyone had forgotten about the compelling but deceitful narrator and Segal’Ena’s hunch, but the girl was beginning to discover that her intuition hadn’t been a fluke. Although she wasn’t exactly psychic, she had an innate talent for reading facial expressions, as though she were translating from an original text. She could divine feelings, intentions, opinions and whatever other secrets might lurk in people’s souls. Segal’Ena soon learned to make use of her gift. At the educational dispensary, she knew when the birthday girl really wanted her to come to her party or not, or when a boy was coming on to her out of genuine desire or just to spite another classmate. As she got older her uncanny intuition would help her friends and relatives to vote for the politician with the best intentions, or the best-hidden ulterior motives, depending on each voter’s approach to politics.
Some years later Segal’Ena, now a young woman, had become an expert diviner of the soul. But it wasn’t as though she’d compiled a glossary of facial expressions, it was more about the process. She ignored repeated or spontaneous tics, blinking, frowns, squints, glances, skin smoothing, ear waggles, flashing or clouding of the pupils, wavering pronunciation and stutters to concentrate instead on the general feel of what the subject was projecting plus, occasionally, their tone of voice, and she was never wrong. It wasn’t about drama or semiotics; she saw through the fronts people put on without falling back on prejudice, prior assumptions or analysis of their body language, confident that a face cannot hide anything from the clear-sighted examination. Given that she specialized in sincerity it should not come as a surprise that she was open to her moment of enlightenment. She ended up training to be a civil servant on the island of Dórdica, choosing the ministerial route rather than taking the entrance exam for the police or security services. She applied to the Centre for the Maintenance of Public Life on the premise that the community would find it useful to know whether the people who applied for the subsidies granted by the said body were being honest or not. Although it pained her to report frauds, and especially to refuse funds to private individuals, she was steadfast: Not that one; he’s a cheat. Occasionally she was also called upon to decide criminal cases. The fact that she never failed could be attested to by a string of convicts who, minutes, days or weeks after hearing her pronouncement finally cracked under the pressure of her precise, measured, well-meaning judgment and either out of sheer exhaustion or with resigned joy had accepted themselves for who they really were. Of course, sometimes Segal’Ena declared that people were innocent, too. However, the ability to discriminate between guilt and innocence came at a heavy cost: it made her painfully aware of her responsibility. Every soul suffers from tectonic shifts and tremors, not to mention the odd hidden mangrove swamp. Segal’Ena was tormented by the idea of weakness. Sometimes, when she looked in the mirror, her face revealed the most flagrant deceit she’d ever seen in all her years of mentalist therapy. Segal’Ena was a solid building vulnerable to erosion: a corrective institute for herself. There was always some flaw that needed to be remedied. And she never ruled out the possibility that she might be wrong. Once, in fact, she really did mess up. One night in autumn a second-rate screen actor called Arlio Duruache was enjoying the fire frenzy at the Anis Festival when one of the reveling drunks firing into the air shot him in the head. The small-caliber bullet lost momentum after bursting through the temporal bone but still managed to pierce the right eye before settling in the nasal cavity. At the hospital awaiting treatment, still gushing blood, Arlio had sneezed, and the bullet had dropped to the floor. An insufferable police inspector demanded to know who had hurt him. Arlio said that he didn’t know the guy. The police called upon Segal’Ena to help them decide whether he was telling the truth. Meanwhile, Arlio had undergone surgery on his retina and elsewhere. The right half of his face looked like a splodge of blackberry jam with a cloudy blue eye stuck in the middle. The sunken cheek and small, dark pupil had borne the brunt of the pain and seemed to have slipped downwards as a consequence. Segal’Ena examined the face: it was the picture of both luck and misfortune. She knew that Arlio was telling the truth. But she was wrong. In a way. Arlio, who had a keen conscience, went back to Segal’Ena a week later to tell her that it hadn’t been a random accident; he’d been attacked by the distraught father of a boy to whom he’d supplied fraghe during a time when he was out of work and made a few bits on the side selling intoxicating substances. Segal’Ena observed that you’d have to be an idiot to waste your life smoking fraghe cigarillos. Sure, said Arlio, but I came to tell you that you can make mistakes after all.
I must have been confused by the state your face was in, she said.
Yes, but you aren’t infallible. You need to be careful with your judgments. I say this because I hold you in such high esteem.
Who’s to say that my intuition didn’t sense that you wanted to forgive your attacker?
Well, it wasn’t that so much. Perhaps it sensed my remorse. But much more to the point, Segal’Ena, can I buy you dinner?
In keeping with her predilection for frank behaviour, not to mention the fact that they were both redheads, Segal’Ena immediately fell in love with the love Arlio already felt for her.
Segal’Ena and Arlio were together for a year and a half. With the exception of a couple of cases of facial paralysis, she continued to read strangers’ faces correctly, but she began to be alarmed by the very occasional instances when Arlio questioned her reading of his, sometimes with a little giggle, sometimes rather indignantly. Maybe romantic feelings weren’t as clear cut as those relating to death, greed or power. At least when it wasn’t the kind of love that was cut with a little death, greed or power. How many men have been prevented from feeling emotions both profound and superficial because they’ve grabbed onto the first boulder they came across, refusing to be swept along by the current? It was for such reasons that Segal’Ena and Arlio broke up.
For Segal’Ena time passed in its inexorable way and, although they might initially have aspired to permanence, other loves came and went along with it. Eventually, undercut by uncertainty, attempts to prolong them simply grew embarrassing and they were unceremoniously curtailed. Segal’Ena began to notice not only that what she saw in men’s faces often differed from what they claimed they were feeling inside (and, because they tended to act more or less honourably, she was inclined to believe them) but also that men were misreading her as well. The imbalance was a critical romantic impediment. Segal’Ena found that rather than reading her as she did them, men tried to interpret her. Eventually, she and they became radioactive elements that, while not exactly toxic, were certainly out of phase. One of them put it like this: Segui, our faces are on different wavelengths. And it was precisely when she broke up with that man that Segal’Ena experienced the second moment of clarity in her life, one that was as well timed as it was devastating.
What she had gleaned from her murky explorations of desire was that it wasn’t her reading that was out of kilter, it was her feelings. And this applied to more than just her romantic life, family and friends. She constantly had the sensation that she was coming at things backwards: when feelings came into play she became completely disoriented. She knew that her feelings had always come to her in precisely the opposite way as they did to other people, but now she was really noticing the difference. Given the rough, lukewarm sensation in her torso, one might also say that the difference was feeling her back as well. When the city was troubled and gloomy, she always felt rather joyful. People had learned from the writer Scarvel that life was a long process of decline, but if she ever worried about death it was because it would get in the way of her endless constructivism. When others enjoyed a fesbulot cocktail on ice, she was upset that the cold was hurting her teeth and ruining the flavour of the fesbulot. Segal’Ena might have put this down to her rebellious spirit or, even better, a yearning for freedom, but she had spent so much of her life striving to be objective that she wasn’t going to let herself off with vague reassurances now. Her eyebrows were almost always damp, not because she sweated with anxiety but from the endless drip, drip, drip of questions. People at the theatron were moved more by mysteries or crime stories when they were set on the island, especially if the playwright was local. But she was more upset by a violent drama when it took place far away. And why did she find films at which other people laughed from beginning to end depressing? The disconnect had grown irreversible. It tore her up inside because she liked to bawl her eyes out at sad movies, and it was hard to cry when everyone around you was howling with laughter. For instance, people laughed at someone tripping up in the street, even though that person must be mortified by their pratfall. Sometimes the spectators laughed at the suffering of animals, like ornamental birds kept in huge cages. For them, animals were different, a sub-species, while Segal’Ena saw no great difference between herself and a painted dirdul. It made her feel like breaking all their necks. Maybe she was doomed to regress back to the weird little girl she’d once been. The little girl she’d once been had owned a pet dirdul, and she’d loved it so much that she’d called it Sérkugo, after the smelly, grumpy Man in the Delta de la Torcedura horror stories, just to demonstrate how much she disliked it when people laughed at monsters. And yet it was hard for her to suppress her own laughter when she saw someone vomit, even if they were very sick, or when siblings were deceitful, in real life or in films, or even at a heart-breaking, unnecessary farewell between lovers. She found it so hard, in fact, that in the end she always burst out laughing, and then the other members of the audience would give her disapproving looks. It made her feel guilty.
This was who Segal’Ena was, she’d laugh for no reason and cry in the midst of great joy. They were difficult years of inverted value judgments, of faith in her coruscating gaze based on a foundation of enduring immaturity. Today, after several fleeting romances and accurately divining so much human emotion, the last thing that Segal’Ena wants is to be contrary. Lately, she’s been asking herself whether she’ll always be a little girl. Attempts to reassure her do nothing of the kind – in fact, they drive her crazy.
Every morning Segal’Ena’s virtual maid prepares a maxim for her along with her cup of cofeto. One morning it’s this: Life is as fragile as a cobweb, and the wind never stops blowing. Segal’Ena drinks some of her cofeto and comes to a realization: her love for men will never last, and neither will men’s love for her, regardless of the man, unless she works out how to control her reactions. But she doesn’t think she can. What if she can discipline them or disguise them? On another day she is asked to assess the sincerity of the statements made during a debate between the candidates for city rector. Segal’Ena refuses the invitation because an electoral promise to reduce grodotexamin might well be a lie that nonetheless allows the candidate, when they are elected rector, to eradicate the unscrupulous quasiquarn industry. Behind or underneath a hidden truth of any temperature, other truths both glacial and incandescent may lie. Beneath the sincerity of the girl that Segal’Ena once was there may be an attempt to sabotage the adult Segal’Ena’s love life. Is Segal’Ena burning? Will she be scorched? She feels an urge to turn her contrariness inside out like a jacket, to expose her lining and shake free the bits that get stuck in the seams. But she can’t find anything on which to get a purchase: she has no edges, sleeves or cuffs. She is an untouchable, possibly impermeable skin. It’s not that she’s frustrated by her failure – she’s discovering that everyone is a little like that, just one continuous surface – but she is saddened. In her resignation, rather than turning herself inside out, Segal’Ena becomes contemplative.
Now the contemplative Segal’Ena looks at people’s faces without examining them or trying to understand them. She sees their bodies without listening to their hidden murmurs. She regards the Lagrinach peaks without longing to climb them and stares at objects without feeling the urge to take them apart. She can gaze at the round face of the clock in the kitchenette for five or seven minutes at a time, or at a page among hundreds of others, with no idea of what on earth she’s looking at and, once a period of innocence has passed, whatever it is leaves her indifferent. In many of the things she contemplates she begins to see shapes that don’t belong there. Rather than hindering her enthusiastic use of the senses, she now finds her bureaucratic job assessing sincerity stimulating. Segal’Ena sees a demon with a pipe in the smoke of a burning textile factory, the head of a canary in the hair of the city rector’s wife, her Uncle Misio’s bunion-riddled foot in a puddle of oil on the pavement, Arlio’s wonderfully asymmetric features in the crust of a cheesami tart, a woman raising her arm to the sky in a beehive. She sees the phrase It is forbidden to stop working in the scales of a catfish, an accountant asleep at his desk in the wake of a boat on the Synnah lagoon. She sees a girl reading on her belly in a rolled-up carpet, the skinny, somewhat rigid form of her friend Paghy in a table lamp. She sees herself in the dirty white screen of the cinema when the movie is over. Days later old Uncle Misio is going to tell her that she’s somatic. Thinking you see shapes in objects isn’t an illness exactly, but it is a symptom, the name of which is Simidolia. When her uncle shares his diagnosis, Segal’Ena’s head reads it the wrong way round, which is to say she reads it correctly: she reads the beginning of a verse from the poem Ay Lodia… and remembers the response that she learned in school: life is fragile as a cobweb… Soon afterwards she detects a subtle message hidden in the lyrics of a recent hit. It’s in a dialect she doesn’t know but fastens itself to her head like a tick made of sound. The verbal invasion doesn’t bother her, it doesn’t happen again. Mostly because, as time passes and Segal’Ena wins more mental space for herself by refraining from judgment, she occasionally sees the shape of a face in the face itself, a duplication of features that is not a copy or even a perfect reproduction but which isn’t fake either, rather the natural result of spontaneous physical activity, an organic sculpture of a soul eager to give of itself.
She finds the fidelity of these faces to the information they wish to convey moving.
One afternoon in autumn, to give her mind permission for the clear-out it has been hankering after, she sits down to watch the dance of the waves and the twinkling lights of the bay. Sitting next to her on the bench is a man with a bottello. He drinks in measured sips and eventually, between one sip and the next, says hello to Segal’Ena. He tells her that he’s going to bother her a little because he finds it impossible to stay quiet. He asks her what she can see in the river; she seems to be examining it very closely. She tells him that right now she can’t actually see anything, only the gentle waves. The man says that if she’s staring so hard but can’t see anything, maybe it’s because she’s waiting for something. But what? Well, it’s not that I’m waiting, says Segal’Ena. I have the feeling that one of these days I’m going to fall in love for a long time. The man asks her if she’d like to toast the intuition. She asks what he’s drinking. Beer and human bones, says the man. It’s made from hops and barley like ordinary beer but with the addition of the powdered bones of a relative one hopes to remember before they’re buried. Or cremated, Segal’Ena suggests. The man, nodding, says that the ingredient gives the beer a unique spice, because nothing can be truer than bone, can it? Or a marrow. Segal’Ena takes a sip and allows the bitterness, or spice, to make her shiver. She sips a little more and returns the bottello. Human-bone beer, the man says. I invented it.
Segal’Ena knows immediately that one of these statements isn’t true. But she doesn’t care.