Sunday Stories: “Faces”

An Essay on 5 Faces
The Meanings of Various Words
by Oliver Zarandi


Face 1: Arthur

I look after the man with no face.

My job is to keep enough moisture in the room so his eyeballs don’t dry out. I have to put drops on them manually too and sometimes I am required to take photographs of what used to be his face, to note down any changes.

I feed him through the hole where his head is and I have to note down how he swallows things. His throat bulges out every time like a pelican swallowing a pigeon. I also have to soak up his saliva daily.

The house he lives in has undergone huge changes. Lights are tailored to his needs. The house is monitored 24/7. It is a house of faces and no faces.


It’s not like he’s dead.

He’s alive. He has a name too, and it’s Arthur. He writes down that once the injury occurs, names lose their meanings.

“Day to day, you are who,” he writes.

And I say I am Oliver.

“A good name,” is his reply. Our communications take a long time – too long to recount here – but essentially he tells me that day to day I am Oliver. Like a dog when its owner calls out its name – Oliver – I respond. My head turns. A name is a signal. Even if somebody doesn’t call out my full name, but perhaps a sound from that name – Oll – I – Ver – my head will turn. A name isn’t just who you are – it’s a marker, a pin on a map, giving me context, grounding. “It validates you,” writes Arthur. “It places you in a world where your feet are on the ground. You are real.”

But when he lost his face, he said he wasn’t Arthur anymore. He wouldn’t respond to his name at all. It was true.

He said he was somewhere else, “floating.” He was not one person but a million people at the same time.

“You leave your name,” he says.

“It’s like you’ve been renting a room and the room is your name and then the building is attacked or something. You leave. It’s not safe anymore. It’s not reliable. You leave your name, you go outside and you have no name anymore. You can be anybody you want to be.”


There is an entire room that he doesn’t enter anymore.

It’s down the hall, past the mezzanine that overlooks a magnificent dining room that nobody eats in.

The room isn’t locked, but it’s there. It’s a reminder of who he used to be. The room is filled with pictures, the walls tattooed top to bottom with family photographs, pictures of him as a child, a teenager, wedding photographs, photographs of him in hospital.

There isn’t a single space on the walls for a finger to trace the outline of the photographs frame. It’s a wall filled with Arthur’s life. It also serves as a flicker book, too, of what he looked like and what he looks like. If you whirl your head from left to right at speed, you see this comic of his face falling apart – from young to old, from together to apart.


You don’t care about something until it happens to you. Arthur writes that he never used to care about facial deformities, injuries or living with the trauma of having no face but now he does.

He owns lots of books about facial injuries and often tells me to read them, to “bone up” to see if I can “glean further information about the history of these people”. He sees himself as part of a tribe of people, but instead of a tattoo or piercing, the hole in his face – the absence – is what makes him different.

He feels he is a part of something, a member of a secret history of people without faces.


Faces 2 + 3: Bologna and Emile

There was the story of a man – let’s call him “Bologna” because that was where he was from. This was a long time ago, too – “1856, to be precise,” wrote Arthur.

Bologna was a bird shooter and would often wander the countryside with his trust gun cradled in his arms like a baby. And one day he was shooting birds and the gun exploded. It knocked his right eye out of his head and he suffered an orbital roof fracture.

Bologna recovered. He went through the next 21 years pain free and even boasted of having wonderful children with “golden hair” and “rosy red cheeks.” But then, at dinner, 21 years later, he started choking. His wife, his children, they stood up and tried to help him but he told them to go away.

He put his finger in his mouth and rummaged around for an object that he could feel. He pulled out the breech of a gun, oxidized and “covered in purulent matter”.

“The breech had obviously gone through the orbit and had been lodged in the antrum,” wrote Arthur, smiling – or at least what I thought looked like a smile on his face.

But Arthur’s favourite injury was one of a man who fought in the Napoleonic wars. It was a war famous for jaw injuries, usually cannon shots which carried away – as in, the face was whacked off and travelled independently of the face with the cannonball like two people walking off in a park and leaving their third, stupid friend behind – the features, the tongue, everything. But the story that Arthur liked most was about a man called Emile who sustained an injury at the siege of Alexandria in 1800. A cannonball took off three-quarters of his jaw, his nose and part of the tongue. He was supposed to die but he didn’t – he went on to live for twenty more years.

Here is Emile:


“But it wasn’t easy,” wrote Arthur.

Arthur told me that the man wore a mask – “gilt inside” – which was the same colour as his skin. He was “bedeviled by saliva” too, having to use linen compresses to soak up the spit over the course of one day.


Face 4: M.R (1896-1901)

Arthur says that he feels that although he is lacking certain body parts, he feels more aware of his body as a whole.

On one of my less busy days, I begin to search the house for signs of what kind of man he is.

The books on his shelves are the biggest indication that Arthur has become a prisoner to the body – residing in it and being obsessed with it.

Look at the shelves: a whole section dedicated to anatomical techniques and the history of how the body was portrayed since the 1500’s. I even find carefully selected prints hung up on the wall, ones of Andreas Vesalius dissecting a body in secret and then four pictures of a woman, from different angles, with a deformed, swollen face[1]:


I become obsessed with this woman’s face and decide to search for the reason for her swelling.

Trophoedeme de la face.

Her smile is anchored down to the right, an invisible weight dragging it southwards.

I am not a doctor, so the word Trophoedeme confuses me. At first, my search to find out what this word means ends up with a series of misspellings and confusions, bad translations and useless anagrams.

Here are some of the anagrams, wherein the spaces have been omitted, creating what I like to see as an entirely new word in itself, a word disease:


And here are some common misspellings of the word, again without spaces, creating a new disease of words:


But then, I come across a translation of this malady of the face:

Le malade est atteint par une variété d’éléphantiasis, caractérisée par une augmentation très importante du volume d’un membre ,ou d’une autre partie du corps, due à un œdème (infiltration des tissus par l’eau), apparaissant comme dur et chronique (s’étalant dans le temps).[2]

Which roughly translates to:

The patient is achieved by a variety of elephantiasis, characterized by a very significant increase in the volume of a limb or other body part, due to edema (tissue infiltration by water), appearing as hard and chronic (spreading in time).

So she had some sort of elephantiasis of the face. I create a name for her – Marie-Richard. This sounds suitably European enough. And I stare at her for hours, her face, just her face and think about what kind of life she led, what kind of objects she kept in her room and her bathroom habits, how she washed her face, men she fornicated with and whether or not she was loved, whether she smiled or was forever frozen in that miserable face captured in the photographs.


Face 5: The Imbecile

It is amazing how the vocabulary of the body and disease has changed.

Picking up a book in Arthur’s library only confirms this for me. It is called ‘Counseling In Medical Genetics’ by Sheldon C. Reed, the director at the Dight Institute for Human genetics, The University of Minnesota.

It was published in 1955.

Some names of the chapters: Don’t Marry a Relative! / Mongolism / Clubfoot / Mental Retardation / String Beans and Chubbies / Skin Colour.

Arthur tells me it’s one of his favourite books and he would get me to read it to him like they were bedtime stories.

One of my favourite sections of the book is on Mongolism, a word that sounds thick and heavy in my mouth:

A war veteran student had just become the father of his first child, a Mongoloid. His sexual outlet during his army experience had been restricted to masturbation. His question was ‘Is my mongoloid child a result of some hereditary peculiarity of my wife, or due to the masturbation?’[3]

Arthur and I laugh at this. The male transfers the ‘peculiarity’ to the female body. Arthur taps at my leg, which means I have to carry on reading. The words and scenarios become increasingly difficult for me to say out loud. Words like mongoloid, cretins, bilateral clubfeet, ‘She is a stutterer’, promiscuous women producing ‘Negroid’ children, ‘It turned out she was a mulatto’, dark brown ‘kinky’ hair, abnormalities.

Arthur showed me a picture from his collection of four ‘imbeciles’[4].


Again, the words are as shocking as the ones we found in the book. If we trace the Latin roots of the word, we see the life of the word:

In + Bacculum = bacculum meaning a staff, a stick to support oneself with.

Which then takes us too the next step in the etymology of this word:

Imbecillus = meaning without a supporting staff, suggesting weakness.

Which then takes us to the French meaning of the word, imbecile, meaning physically weak.

The word has taken on new meanings, suggesting that people with the mental age of a 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 year old are imbeciles.

These words, like the faces they are attached to, have lives. And like life, a death is suggested says Arthur. Words live, words go through changes and sometimes words just die. Words get forgotten and words are found living alone in a book somewhere, shocked and surprised that the living has articulated them again.

Arthur shows me the Google analysis of the word Mongoloid, about when it was used and when it became outdated:


And the same for Negroid, another ‘oid’ word:


And I look at the faces of the ‘Imbeciles’ and the ‘Mongoloids’ and the ‘Negroids’ of this book that Arthur has. I imagine the words weighing down the lives of these people, the ‘invisible anchor’ I mentioned earlier that was tied to M.R’s mouth.

“Words,” Arthur says, “are also faces.”

They simplify, they insult, they define, they make abstract. Arthur reveals the hole in his head and I think about the name Arthur. It’s not enough. I think of my face, too, the writer, the man of two nationalities, the thinker, the help, the loner, the lover, the this, the that and slowly, slowly but surely, all the names I tie to my face – and Arthur’s face – are slowly whittled down.

In the end I stare at his face and I stare at my face and there are no words.

Just silence in the house of faces.


[1] Wellcome Library, London: A woman with a deformed and swollen face, possibly Trophomeurosis (?). Caption: ‘Trophoedeme de la Face’:

[2] Here is the website I consulted for M.R’s malady:

[3] Sheldon C. Reed: ‘Counseling In Medical Genetics’.

[4] Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Man’s head seen from the front and back, showing large ears and a deformed scalp. Two process prints:
Oliver Zarandi is a writer and editor. His most recent writing has appeared in The Quietus and Volume 1, Brooklyn. He is the managing editor of Funhouse, a magazine about the body and medicine. He is working a novel. Contact him on @funhousemag

Image original via Creative Commons.

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