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Instytut Filologii

Instytut Filologii

Akadamia Pomorska Słupsk

The Memory of a Long Hated Face by Tomash Silkin

An old man was standing on the ruined road, looking at the picture of a middle-aged male with a sad gaze in his eyes. It was hanging on the rusty steel pipe with a stop-sign on the top of it. A warning message has been written beneath the picture: “Beware of the Deceiver, the Traitor of humanity.” A vague sensation crossed his body, a kind of unease appeared in his heart. Is this a morning breeze or something more? He was unsure - a common feeling for people these days. He had food supplies and clean water for another week, but then he would have to break into abandoned houses that might be infected. Needless to say, mask filters were long gone. He sipped from a plastic bottle and moved further down the path. His black leather boots, fixed with a duct-tape countless times, left a mark on the lonely road, and patched cargo pants rustled rhythmically along with the muffled steps. It was early spring, only a few layers of sweaters, t-shirts, and a warm brown jacket with a hood protected him from cold. 
He miraculously survived the ruthless winter, being stuck in a mountain cab with almost no food whatsoever, and now was attempting to find a nice place to eventually rest after many decades of wandering the roads of decaying America. He knew that this may be a pipe dream, but what else he could do, what another purpose he might have? He looked at the white patch with a red cross on the shoulder and came to senses - he was a doctor, a lifesaver. Yet, everything that reminded about people in the last few years - body bags beside the road, waiting for the incineration machine that never came. He hated being around people, as they reminded him of old times when humanity still had ambitions, reaching to stars, unveiling secrets of the universe. He hated being around people because they brought back why he went on self-exile - the reason he tried to forget for so long. Finally, people reminded him of a grave failure, he wiped out from his memory along with hatred and self-pity, leaving only numb disappointment. At least, the patch granted him a chance of survival in case of stumbling upon bandits, the only main occasion when these mad beasts may respect human life and don’t kill you on sight. The thing is, they still fear deadly the plague that wiped out most of humanity. Pretty reasonably,  the Doctor would say, as who else than him could tell, that it might kill you in the space of a week or two? Deep in thoughts, he mindlessly walked forward, when a female’s scream rang out, and then a few times more. The Doctor stumbled and started looking around, trying to spot the source of the remote cries. With another distanced scream, a flock of small grey birds flew up from the forest on the right side. Bandits, here? He hesitantly took the hunting rifle off his shoulder and checked ammo in the shutter with shaking fingers. He looked at the road ahead, back into the forest, and at the road again. He decided with the next scream. 
He stepped into the forest, carefully moving from tree to tree. With the efficiency of an experienced hunter, he silently approached a little remote shack. He didn’t see any bandits, but attached the rifle to his shoulder nevertheless. He came up to the nearest muddy window and examined a room inside - it was a kitchen with rickety furniture and broken dishes. By the look of it, the shack was completely deserted, and the Doctor nearly decided to go further when a scream sounded right from the middle of the building. A muted male voice said: 
“Mary, goddammit, stop screaming, they will find us!” 
“I can’t, it hurts too bad!” A female’s voice replied desperately.
 The Doctor opened the door with a quiet clinging sound and entered a cab. The interior’s state was rather depressing, with one-half of wooden surfaces rotten and dotted with termite holes and other half covered in green and white mould. Pointing a rifle in front of himself, he came into a large living room with a fireplace on the right inner wall. A man was on his knees with his back to the Doctor, a woman lay on the floor beneath him. 
“Get away from her,” said the Doctor with a hoarse voice, directing the rifle at man’s back. They went completely silent, and, when a man stood up and turned to the old man, he became paralyzed and his wide-open eyes filled with fear.  
“Did you hear me? Step aside!” The Doctor’s voice brought the man back to reality, and he moved closer to the window, gazing at him with terror. The old man now saw a woman with his own eyes - she was lying on the floor with spread legs and tried to lift her head to see what was happening but her big belly prevented that. A big, round belly?... The Doctor saw images of another woman from the past lying in the same position and eventually realized that this woman was pregnant. It shocked him, and a rifle in his hands started shaking. He stared at them with an understanding of who they were - a defenceless young pair in one of the most important moments in their life. A fellow had brown hair, ragged beard, and wore beige clothing, scarcely adapted to a life on the road; a pregnant girl had marvellous long blonde hair, an innocent look on her face, and a dress of the same colour as guy’s apparel. As the Doctor spoke to them, all confidence in his voice disappeared.
“I-I’m sorry, I was thinking…,” he stopped noticing the rifle in his hands and leaned it against the wall. A young man got down and helped the girl to get up on hands. 
“Who are you?” his voice sounded suspicious but not scared. 
“I am a doctor,” an old man turned a right shoulder to them, showing the patch with a red cross on a white background. “See?”
Slowly, recognition came, and their faces shone with happiness. A young man opened his mouth to say something, but the girl loudly moaned, interrupting him. 
“Put her down! Yes, I will help you. Do you have food, medication?” The Doctor stepped closer and sat on one knee near pregnant.  
“No, sir, we have only food for a few days,” said the young man bluntly. The old-man sighed. 
“Whatever, lad, I will help you anyway.” He started rummaging through the backpack, looking for the first aid kit. It was used and time-worn but still served its purpose. The young man smiled with gratitude. His uncertainty completely worn off, he was ready for action. 
“How can I help?” He asked enthusiastically. 
“Light the fire and find something to boil some water in.” The fear crossed the lad’s face once again. 
“No, we can’t...”
“You surely don’t have warm water, do you?”
“And certainly don’t wanna any complications? Then do what I say, fella,” he exclaimed almost menacingly. 
“O-okay then. My name’s Peter, by the way,” he gave up arguing and started scouring the shack for a pan. The Doctor turned to the girl.
“Mary, right? Listen, you need to breathe evenly, and when it kicks in - push. Simple, yeah?” She nodded, and he placed some pillows under her back for comfort. Peter brought a big black sooty pan from the kitchen and placed it on the holders inside the fireplace. 
“Look, I know you’re running from someone, but we need to take this matter seriously,” a pair looked at him questionably. “I’ve overheard this on the threshold. What’s the deal?”
“We were born and married in the community on the south from here and things were ok,” Peter responded. “But then Mary got pregnant, and, well… kids don’t belong to their parents there, and we wanted a real family. This old lady told us a lot of stories about strong settlements up the north with electricity and stuff. Then, when they burned her house down, we ran.”
“I see,” the Doctor grunted, “I don’t want to upset you but I came from the north - and there are no settlements, especially the ones with electricity. I would have known,” he frowned as trying to remember something. “Hey, what’s up with fire?” 
“Few minutes. What do you need it for?” Peter did look a bit upset.
“Here, take this. I need you to wash them,” the old man handed him a canister with water and rags. “One more thing. Do I look that scary? You should have seen your faces when I came.” Peter wanted to answer, but Mary interrupted him.  “No, just… never mind.”
“Okay then,” the Doctor chuckled. They spent all day taking care of Mary, changing warm rags under her. 
“Push, Mary, push! Come on, I can see the head!” The old man scolded. With a face full of pressure and pain, Mary did the best she could while Peter held her hand, soothing her. Eventually, the Doctor pulled the baby out and spanked a few times, however, it didn’t respond. He checked the pulse - there was none. 
“What’s wrong?” Peter looked terrified. Without a response, the old-man placed a child on the palm of his hand and started massaging its heart. After an eternally long minute, the child screamed and started shaking his limbs. Every person in the room exhaled with relief. 
“It’s a girl,” the Doctor smiled and handed the child to Mary. Peter cheered, stood up, and hugged the old man. 
“We’re forever grateful, father,” a small tear came down his cheek. 
“Not a big…” Suddenly, he saw a movement outside the window, black figures were surrounding the shack. Peter glanced outside and swore. 
“Shit! They’ve found us. Doc, you’d better put on some kind of mask. Quickly!” The old man reached to his backpack and took a massive medical mask out of the outer pocket and put it on. Then he grabbed a rifle and cocked the shutter.
“For negotiation purposes,” he pointed it towards the entrance.
“It’s pointless, there are too many of them,” Peter’s voice sounded desperate. 
The next moment a muscular man with a bushy black beard and an ugly scar on the right side of his bald head entered the room, ominously grinning. Right after him, two more men pumped up and a woman with a face suffering from pox came in. All of them held a gun. 
“You make too much noise you coward runaways, Peter. You also made the whole community very, very upset,” he menacingly closed in. 
“Look, I’m sorry, but we needed to find someone who knew how to help Mary…” Peter tried to exonerate himself.    
“Did you just question the abilities of our beloved and mighty Prophet?” The muscular man cocked a trigger and then slightly nodded. His subordinates began to approach.  
“No! No, wait!” 
“Step no further,” the Doctor shot on the floor, and the leader looked at him as if just noticed him. 
“Well, well, who is this? A mask, a patch with red cross… A doctor! What a delightful meeting. Excuse me, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Judah, the right hand of the Prophet, the one who speaks the truth. We need help from someone like you, so if you put your rifle down, we would gladly escort you to our little village. And don’t fucking dare to shoot, or my dear friends outside will make a sieve out of you!” He yelled at the last sentence. “You’re outnumbered here, old man, so I would recommend you to accept this proposition. Maybe, the Prophet will even award you.” The Doctor frowned, and slowly lowered a rifle. 
“I agree only if they will be safe.”  
“Sure,” Judah waved his hand and one of the men went behind the Doctor’s back and pushed him towards the entrance. He grabbed his backpack and went outside, and now saw that shack was surrounded by six more men. One of them had a red beard and was fiercely coughing. The old man glanced through the window and saw that another guy and woman separated Mary with a newborn baby and Peter tried to prevent that, but Judah punched him in the stomach, knocking him to the floor. The Doctor tried to reach the rifle on the shoulder, but the man warningly growled. Judah’s voice behind the window sounded almost inaudibly. 
“Sorry kiddo, he didn’t tell to bring you back,” he said mockingly and shot him in the chest. 
Speechless, the old man stood there, and the image of dead Peter changed into the memory from the past - he now saw the bodies of three young boys, lying on the floor beneath. He dropped a revolver and tears came down his cheeks… 
“Let’s go, brothers and sisters!” clapping of Judah’s hands brought him back to reality.  
“You lied,” the Doctor strained angrily.
“Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t notice.” He began whistling.
“And Mary, she needs to rest,” noted the old man with clenched teeth.
“Well, here’s the situation - she either goes or dies, a simple choice,” responded Judah and took a lead. The Doctor approached Mary.
“Stay away from a man with a red beard, I have a bad feeling about him,” he whispered, and then after a few seconds added. “I-I’m sorry.” Mary pursed her lips and silently went forward. 
            They walked all night, a few lanterns lit the road. At dawn they passed by a large city with most of the skyscrapers burned down and destroyed. Not a single metropolis survived the hour of madness. Without any rest, they wandered another few hours until first sentinels showed up, observing them from afar. Eventually, they reached the destination: a large settlement lied in front of them, hundreds of people crowded the streets. The sign at the entrance read: “Welcome to Blessfield!” and all trees nearby were stuck with pictures of the same man he saw a day ago.  
            Inside the village, half of the guards took Mary and her baby away while the main group with Judah led the Doctor to the massive building in the centre. It was a well-preserved white mansion in the colonial style with three floors and tasteless columns. The old man followed them through the main entrance and to the backside until they stopped in front of a small door. Judah opened the door, and the Doctor went inside. It appeared to be a large empty room, illuminated by sunlight and consisting of only an operating table with a man, lying under a white sheet. A whole place stank with rotten flash and faeces while the man on the table flounced restlessly in a fever.
“Meet the brother Lazar,” announced Judah, “I need you to save this poor soul.”
            The Doctor circled the table, observing the deceased - he was a handsome young man with a neatly trimmed beard and shaved temples. The old man took one-off gloves to examine the body closer, pulled a sheet off, and gasped with a shock – his right hand, from shoulder to fingers, was charred. His ribs were broken and bulged out. He took a closer look at the arm -  a dark grey liquid mass was moving on the black surface of the skin, and the Doctor tried to understand what it was for a few minutes when a realization struck him. Terrified, he leaped from Lazar. The sectarians placed a hand on their weapons warily. 
“Shit!” The Doctor swore. “What the fuck happened to him?!”  
“What’s wrong?” Judah tried to approach Lazar, but the old man put out a hand in his direction. 
“Don’t move! He has a silver plague,” with these words, the men’s faces changed and they backed up outside the room. 
“The plague that…” hesitantly started Judah, but the Doctor immediately interrupted him.    
“Yeah, the one that wiped out the whole damned humanity,” he caught his breath, ”Look, I think there is still a chance left if I amputate his hand. Agreed?” a Judah vigorously nodded, “ and I need instruments and bandages.”  
            Tired and hungry, he began the operation with confidence. At first, he cut off his hand while scared grunts held his agonizing body, and then straightened the ribs. The whole process lasted until sunset when he collected all clothes and sheets, exposed to the plague, into one stack. With a sense of accomplishment, the Doctor went to a bucket with water to wash the blood off his hands.
“Burn those,” he nodded at the pile. “Don’t touch it with bare hands. Also, Judah…” a scarface raised an eyebrow. “Check the dwellers, and fast. It can kill the whole community in a few weeks, especially if it got straight to the lungs.”
“Impossible, the Prophet himself found him in the forest and brought here,” rejected Judah.
“Your Prophet could’ve contracted it,” noticed the Doctor.
“Watch your mouth, old man. He could’ve not - he is a disciple of God, a pure being.”  
“Can a burned house be related to what happened to Lazar?” asked the Doctor and everybody went completely silent, the eyes full of anger glanced at him. 
“How do you… Shit, it’s none of your business! Shut up, if you want to get out of here alive,” Judah suspiciously squinted. “You know, I’ve noticed one little thingy - you didn’t change filters in your mask for our whole trip. Why are you wearing this mask, if it’s none- fucking-working?” 
“Okay, it’s not my problem, I will leave right away…” The Doctor tried to walk out of this situation.
“Oh no, my friend, you are not going anywhere,” the sectarians pulled out the weapons and directed at the old man. “Take off the mask,” Judah cocked the trigger.
            The Doctor slowly looked around - the situation was a dead-end, as he was in the middle of lunatics’ settlement, and they wouldn’t just let him escape. Simply put, he had no choice, so he took the mask off. A few seconds after someone screamed “Deceiver!” and ran out of the room while others just stood in a stupor. The old man glanced at the reflection on the surface of the water - he saw the same face as the one on a broadsheet, but older: long grey hair, a pointy beard, sunken cheeks, and sad sight. An image appeared before him - a young and strong version of himself, smiling with approval…  
Judah was the first to pull himself together. “Stay there, Deceiver, you’re going to meet our Prophet,” he laughed triumphantly. “A Holy Trial awaits you!” 
            They dragged him through the whole village to a craggy church on the hill. The watchmen at the entrance unkindly observed the crowd that gathered behind the procession.
“The Traitor shall show his essence,” one of them exclaimed and coughed. Thugs ripped the Doctor’s clothes off, leaving him completely naked. It was a cold evening, so he wrapped his arms around himself. An ominous semi-darkness inside was illuminated by hundreds of candles, chaotically strewn all around the place. Judah put the Doctor on his knees in front of the high red throne. A hideous creature, tightly wrapped in a black shroud, sat on staring at the crowd opposite him with deranged bead eyes. 
“Who is it?” his voice shuffled like dry bones in a coffin.
“The Deceiver, Your Eminence,” answered Judah, bowing to him.
“The Traitor himself? Good, good… You finally came to apologize to humanity for the world you destroyed? Answer me!” a raging exclamation changed into a severe cough. 
“I did nothing wrong except living too long on this sick planet. Let me go if there’s some decency left in your soul,” the Doctor uttered desperately. People behind him grumbled indignantly. 
“You dare to insult me?!” he turned to the crowd. “My dear children, what should I do with him?”
“Put him on a cross!” the sectarians shouted. “On a cross!” 
“A cross? Yes, yes… With that filthy thief Distas,” he chuckled. “A proper punishment for a deceiver. It’s settled, then. Begin the preparations for tomorrow. Get him out of here,” he waved his hand and plunged back into thoughts.
They put him in a barn converted into a prison. A cell, which once was a stall, had a cold floor and walls blown by the winds. A dirty naked man was lying in the corner of an adjacent cell. With another wind blow, he shuddered and suddenly woke up and then noticed the Doctor.
“I can’t believe it! They’ve found another Deceiver! It was stupid of you to come here with all these papers along the road,” he sarcastically laughed. 
“Yeah, obviously, and I wasn’t going to - they caught me up in the north and dragged here while I was still a doctor. Well, maybe I deserve this in a way,” wearily said the Doctor.
“Oh, fuck no. The previous one didn’t deserve shit - he was just an old beggar without any brain cells. I don’t think they even remember all this mess. Dunno what the Prophet does to them, but the crowd seems to eat every crap he gives them. The truth is - all this ‘Prophet and disciples’ shit is a complete joke,” burst out the naked man.
“Distas, right? He put you here for what you said?” 
“Nah, man, I just stole a few things and stupidly got caught. Thus, because I will die tomorrow, I can say whatever the fuck I want,” and added whispering. “At least they didn’t take that away…”  the conversation came to naught and they eventually fell asleep.   
            Around midnight, the screams tore the silence and lasted for half an hour.  After another thirty minutes, a few thugs dragged a struggling person and threw it into another neighbouring cell. A flicker of moonlight snapped out a fragment of a stranger’s face, and the Doctor immediately recognized it - it was Peter who he considered being dead. 
“Peter? How-how did you survive?” the old man whispered to him. 
“Doctor, they got you as well? Shit, I told you not to wear off the mask… You left your first-aid kit, so I patched myself when I woke up, that’s how I survived,” answered Peter.
“You knew all along, didn’t you? That’s why you had this face,” the Doctor apathetically realized it. 
“S-sorry… But I’ve got a plan!” The young man exclaimed enthusiastically. 
“Whatever, it doesn’t matter anymore,” he fell back into sleep. 
            The grand execution began in the morning. The condemned were clothed in long white robes and led to the hill near the church where two crosses were put up on the bare edge. Distas was already pinned when the Doctor’s turn came - thugs hung him up on the cross, while the Prophet held mass from his throne, which was brought to the doorstep of the church. The old man tried to hold back his screams, but the pain from nails, piercing flash, was too unendurable. Judah grinned with a curved smile. 
“I want to confess, Distas,” the Doctor turned to the thief. 
“You chose the right time, my friend,” he wrinkled in pain. 
“I’m not a doctor.”
”No shit,” he made a dramatic surprised expression on his face. 
”My wife was. I used to be an epidemiologist. I was a part of a group of scientists that looked for a cure from the silver plague. My family lived in the epicentre of the pandemic. One day, my boys just… went outside to play. Before my wife found out, they had been exposed for 5 minutes. That was enough to contract it. When they fell ill, I went completely mad. We were close to success, but my ignorant actions pushed everything back. And then the world went to hell,” he lowered his head and a tear came down his cheek. “When the plague got their brain, they became animals. I shot them in their beds. For all these years I wondered what if my boys just had stayed at home…”
“The past is past, old man. It’s not your fault.”
“I was so angry,” his voice trembled. 
“Me too, me too. Just enjoy the dawn, as I do. Soon it’ll be over,” he grinned melancholically. The dawn was truly spectacular, the rays gently enveloped their suffering bodies. The Prophet finished the ceremony and pointed at Distas. Accompanied by disturbing chorus moans, Judah spiked the thief’s heart with precise movement, the sad smile froze on his face. The Prophet pointed at the Doctor, but before Judah could strike, the crowd rustled and Lazar, supported by Peter with an assault rifle in hands, appeared before the throne. Scarface moved to them, but Peter shot in the air stopping him. 
“Don’t move you sucker, he has something to say,” he yelled.
“Lazar, my dear child…” The Prophet began. 
“Don’t ‘child’ me, you sick bastard! I know what you did!” everybody went silent, “I saw how you raped old Eve, but you didn’t know she had the silver plague, did you?” He chuckled. “So you decided to burn the house down with her inside, right? I saw it, so you tried to kill me as well. I don’t know why you brought me here, but you’d better finish what you started!”
“Liar!” The Prophet splashed out fiercely. 
“I see now. You’re nothing but an old deranged lunatic,” he took out a lighter with the only hand.
“Kill him! KILL HIM!” the Prophet screamed so hysterically that his hood fell off, revealing a deformed head with parchment skin and silver-black ulcers. Most sectarians froze in a daze but Judah tried to throw a spear in Lazar. Peter shot him in the neck and he fell on the ground, choking in blood. At the same time, Lazar set fire to the Prophet. Screaming heartily, he tried to throw off the shroud, but fire already flopped over the skin, melting it. The closest guards leaped to him to help put out the fire, but the Prophet suddenly flared up, releasing a pillar of fire around, and guards also flared up, spreading the diabolic fire on the crowd. Chaos occurred and people began to flee, shouting in terror. Peter darted to the Doctor. 
“You see, I had a plan,” he nervously grinned, freeing the old man, “C’mon, we need to run!” He looked around and saw that scorching people with grimaces of agony merged into an impenetrable firewall.  
“Shit!” He desperately swore. They were trapped between steep slope and fire. The Doctor came up to the firewall limping. Glancing at its surface, he caught sight of images from the past that had been torturing him for whole life and evaporated along with guilt and sorrow. A man from papers looked at him with a soothing smile. He was finally free, his mind gained the clarity he had never felt before. Peter noticed a strange glimpse on the old man’s face.
“NO!” He shouted, running to him.
“Thank you,” not paying attention to Peter, the Doctor turned to the dead body of Distas. 
And walked into the fire.   
 the end.  

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