En Garde

Claire Guyton

Sergei’s scar started just below his hairline over the left eyebrow and cut across his face on an almost perfect diagonal, slashing his nose and barely missing his mouth. It was so deep it looked, at first, as though it wasn’t a scar at all, but a fissure, as though finally the work of being Sergei was too much, and his face had split from the pressure.

It is. It is splitting from the pressure. He puts a hand on the back of his head and the other hand on his chin. He pushes hard with both. When is it safe to let go?

A sword fight, he had told his classmates. The man was dressed all in black, he wore a mask like a dog—like a bulldog!—and he was taller than the oak tree in their front yard. He threatened his mother! And so Sergei took a stand. En garde, en garde, a flash of metal across the face, his mother screaming bloody terror, a rally, en garde, en garde, en garde. And like that the man in black was gone.

When it’s cold, the scar aches a dull pulse, like a tender bone, narrow and too thin. When it’s hot, as it is today, his sweat gathers in the engraved line and his face is sliced by a streak of silver, like the blade that divided the flesh had sunk deep into his face to stay, not too deep to catch the light.

En garde! In grade school the scar had made him interesting. Olivia Denton, pink-faced, eyes like wet caramel apples, lying next to him at nap time. Silent, watching. Then reaching over to trace her finger along it. Back and forth, back again. He held his breath, didn’t blink, focused all his attention on being absolutely still. Back and forth, her touch light as an eyelash but hot as a lit match.

In middle school the scar had made him an object of pity, and, for a short time, a target for bullies. A very short time, because Sergei had never been confused about what to do about bullies, only outnumbered at first by too many. That first couple of times he had played it safe. The third time he would have been ready for twice their number. No need for sword play, just a well-placed steel-toed boot to a knee made, apparently, of porcelain. A sharp elbow aimed square at the nose so there was plenty of memorable blood. And just like that, nobody messed with Sergei.

If you are pitied and then feared, you develop a certain kind of aloofness, that, once you can grow stubble, once a soft scowl no longer looks petulant but serious, once you find yourself a head taller than your peers and with shoulders the width of a Mack truck, is mistaken for dignity. The scar, overlaid with all that fake dignity, was the only reason, he was pretty sure, he ever got laid in college. After, he would take her index finger, brush it along the scar, light, light, lighter.

When he’s exhausted, like today, the scar pulls tight on his skin, pulls at his brow and his nose, at his jaw, so tight the whole damn thing itches like a bitch. But if he dares to scratch, he will sever the thin threads holding it all together. He cannot scratch he must not scratch. He winds his left fingers into his hair, pushing on the back of his head at the same time that he pulls the hair, hard, to distract from the itch. He pushes harder still on his chin with his right hand, pushes until his jaw aches, his teeth feel loose, pushes.

In his twenties the scar had made him a bad-ass, the guy you stepped aside to avoid, the one you never approached at the bar. He dressed the scar with a leather jacket and those trusty steel-toed boots, with long waves of black hair cut shaggy against his face. His whole persona said, you don’t get a scar like this if you’re a cautious man. His body said, when? When can I let go?

He has no memory of a self without the scar and today he wants one. If he can remember, if he can find some fragment of himself that has nothing to do with this scar, his face, he thinks, will be satisfied with the revelation, his face will stop this relentless pulling apart at the seam, this cleaving down to the center of himself, just so desperate to know.

There have been moments, brief, when he forgot himself as a scarred thing. When he was not a hunk of something marred by an unhappy accident, but harnessed power. In those moments he was the source of the hand working out an arithmetic equation, the trained eye catching the right light with the camera lens. For an instant he was a creative force, his body a flawless, humming engine designed to make perfect things. And the degree to which he was of any value was measured entirely by whether he successfully made these things.

But no. What he remembers, too, remembers better, is that each instant of forgetting is ruined because he would, in the next instant, be jolted out of the purity of making something, and again, as always, know himself as disfigured by a scar that looks like someone took a hatchet to his face. And then those moments are no longer about the simple perfection of an arithmetic equation or the way the morning sun of deep winter glazes the sky over a frozen river, no longer about the color and scent of inspiration. They were about that shock of recognition. Like everything else, they were about the scar.

When? When is it safe?

Claire Guyton is a southern transplant to Maine, where she has been a Maine Arts Commission Literary Fellow and twice a finalist for the Maine Literary Award. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, and appears in many journals, including CrazyhorseMid-American ReviewVestal ReviewRiver Styx, and Sliver of Stone Magazine, as well as in the Maine anthology Summer Stories.