from the editor's desk

‘What is Mine is Yours’ by Lucy Zhang

This short story by Lucy Zhang was published in Westerly 68.2, and we’re thrilled to make it freely available for everyone to read here on the Editor’s Desk.

Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, CRAFT, The Spectacle and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Hollowed (Thirty West Publishing, 2022) and ABSORPTION (Harbor Review, 2022).

What is Mine is Yours

The rich can afford new faces but the poor must make do with what they are given at birth. Occasionally, the poor get the option to sell their faces and, if they’re pretty enough, they might earn a nice sum of money. More often, higher-ups will hire mercenaries to steal desired faces and sell them in the underground market. Only the beautiful poor get their faces stolen like in the fairytales, and there are very few of those types of people. Still, we sleep with our doors locked and masks covering our eyes and mouths.  

Yun is prettier than me but insists I wear the mask while sleeping. I suspect she’s a masochist who doesn’t want me to breathe at night. Yun claims she’s worried about my safety. To be honest, I would be fine if my face were stolen—it’d leave me with a blank canvas, which is much easier to work with than trying to cover up existing skull lines and eyelids—if only I had the money to buy a new face, maybe several of them for multiple occasions. Yun won’t let me sell my face at the market even though we need the money for a proper heater. ‘Then you won’t be you anymore,’ she says. ‘Of course I will, the change is only superficial,’ I reply. But I don’t sell my face and we continue to tangle our legs with each other in bed, seeking warmth from our body heat since the covers hardly cover us as the breeze slips in from the loose boards of the room.   

Some boutique stores display faces in their storefront windows. I like to scan the faces and if one catches my attention, I’ll dress up in a fancy suit and tie stolen from the landfill where rich people’s trash gets specially partitioned off and resold to us. Then I’ll walk in and ask the shopkeeper to show me the face so I can admire it up close, although I’m careful not to admire it for too long. Shopkeepers smell poverty like bloodhounds. I spend hours window shopping until Yun catches me and berates me for wasting time. I’m supposed to restock the snack section of the small grocery store we manage, but the snacks are still half full, and it’s not like that processed junk goes bad. Yun claims that partially empty shelves dissuade customers from shopping—‘They need to surround themselves with abundance to obtain abundance,’ she preaches. How much a customer buys doesn’t actually matter. Profits don’t go to us. We funnel the money up the management chain where rich people own all of the stores. We earn the same hourly wage regardless of whether a customer buys one bag of dried squid or seven. But Yun has always been a try-hard, and her pretty face makes her habits endearing rather than annoying to most. Rich folks will occasionally even drop a few coins in our tip jar when she stands at the cashier stand.  

‘You can’t keep dressing like a bag,’ she tells me when I arrive at our store after another round of meandering through the stores. I let my uniform hang loose on my body like a tablecloth. It’s more comfortable, plus it hides what I call poor people curves: like the edge of a cheap nightstand, sharp and chipped when you round the corner too quickly.

‘Appearances are important, they are the first impression,’ Yun continues.  

‘Right, that’s why I should sell my face,’ I reply.   

Yun brings her hand to her forehead. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your face.’ 

‘Says the one with a good-looking face.’  

Yun blushes. It’s easy to distract her. ‘Yours is fine too.’  

‘Sure it is,’ I say. Sometimes I like to think thieves stole my original face and swapped it out with a spare when I was young, too young to understand what it felt like to have organs and features that felt out of place, as though I had been jigsawed together with pieces from different puzzles, bulges crammed into edges that didn’t match but managed to maintain one disjointed form. Yun and I are twins so I should’ve been born with a face at least passably resembling hers, but instead, it’s like I’ve been carved out of the evil witch or warlock’s portrait from a fairytale. People can’t even tell if I’m a boy or a woman. Ugly is ugly no matter how much Yun protests.  

‘Are you taking the cashier shift today?’ I ask. ‘Seems like there’ll be a lot of people since it’s the Orchid Festival tonight.’ Everyone is last-minute shopping for flower-infused candies to fill their baskets of offerings placed outside their doors. The candies taste disgusting and bitter, though—I’m not sure which sane deity would want such an offering, but I welcome the busy work. I prefer if Yun works as the cashier since she yields more tips, without which we can’t afford eggs, our main source of protein. I’ve suggested to Yun that we can eat the huge grocery stock of expired leftovers that’d otherwise get tossed into the Wastelands, but she refuses to take the risk since the law technically defines stealing as a crime punishable by skinning and dismemberment. 

‘It’s safer if you stay inside,’ I add. 

Yun pauses for a moment, looking at the fake flowers hanging on the lampposts in celebration of the festival. Yun loves dressing up in the traditional Orchid Festival garb: a wide-sleeved dress, a lengthy skirt, a long flowing robe cinched at the waist with a belt. We own one dress, and it’s not nearly as splendid as what the rich folks will wear—skirts embroidered with elaborate silk flowers or clouds or patterns neither of us can recognise, belts a vibrant red or blue or purple. The dress Yun wears contains several rips we’ve patched over time, nearly unnoticeable in all the folds of fabric. Yun loves how the dress spirals outward from her tiny waist because it magnifies her presence while preserving her delicacy. But she gets too distracted by the apparel. The Orchid Festival is about offering human lives to the deities in exchange for continued harvest. The city rounds up thirteen of the most beautiful girls, dresses them in purple, and adorns them with crowns of orchids before ordering them to march into the ocean where it’s said the deities will take the girls’ souls to the heavens as sustenance. Rich folks avoid the ritual by switching out their faces so officials can’t easily confirm their original appearances. I worry officials might snatch Yun up while I’m not looking, though. I constantly remind her of the risk when she prances on the streets in her long, water-like dress, but she always ignores me.   

‘I’ll handle the cashier,’ she concedes, although her cheeks redden and eyes water. She must know I’m weak to her tears.  

‘If I sold my face, we could afford to buy a man’s face for you to wear to the Orchid Festival. Then I can handle the store,’ I suggest, turning my back to her so her face is out of view.    

‘You are not selling your face.’ 

I shrug. ‘I’m going to clean out our stock.’ Boxes of expired items clutter the storage, blocking the door from fully opening. Bags of unopened flour cakes and fa gao spill from one of the boxes toppled by my feet. I gather the box into my arms and begin my one of many trips from the storage room to the waste disposal.  

The nice thing about the path to the waste disposal is it avoids crowded areas. People rarely travel here, especially not rich folks who have vehicles to transport their trash for them. As such, I’m free to rip open the snack bags and cram pieces of dough into my mouth as I walk, not terribly worried about being skinned and quartered. The fa gao is only expired by two months so they’re still light and soft and plump, the top split slightly like a blooming flower. I eat five before I worry Yun might notice crumbs stuck between my teeth. I toss the empty packaging into the disposal.  
On the way back, I detour through the city where most of the stores selling faces are located. Few people roam these streets on the evening of the Orchid Festival—most are last-minute candy-shopping or have left for the centre square, the only time poor folks can visit without being sneered at or ignored completely. I’m free to stare openly at the faces presented without catching the attention of hawk-like shopkeepers or security guards. I walk slowly, pressing my hand on the different glass fronts as though I can touch the bridge of the noses, where they round and dip, and the softness of the eyelids and socket, how it sinks inward just enough to convey depth but not bone. Although the faces are different in form, they possess the same general theme of curves—symmetrical, impeccable, like heavenly beings had shed their faces for profit. I go from store to store, comparing eyes and ears and mouths and noses. I pinch my cheeks until they numb and turn pink. Maybe this amount of colour will add the femininity this face lacks, a flush that spreads down my neck and chest and eventually into the hollow of my womb where it gets swallowed for good. In the end, adding blush to my face only makes it more clown-like.  

The further down I venture, the more rundown the stores become. The types of faces seem to shift from embodiments of perfection to more uniquely defined feature sets—larger noses, flatter eyes, foreheads that dip slightly like they’ve been pressed into with an iron. The faces still look like pieces of art, intentionally flawed. I approach the store to my right. Its glass display contains seven faces on a spectrum of prices, the lowest of which seems reasonably affordable if Yun and I were to pool together our savings. The face is shaped like a goose egg, cheekbones hidden behind flat, pale skin, the eye outline and side creases smooth like it had been cut in one stroke of an Exacto knife. I must’ve been staring too long because footsteps approach and I spin around to see the shopkeeper standing by the door. He leans against the door frame, one hand on the wall and one holding the doorknob. Because of a hunched back, he looks more childlike from afar, but up close, his eyelids sag, and with every facial movement, a dozen different creases form by his eyes and cheeks. The hairs poking from his hat are bright white. He looks like our ye ye before ye ye died from pneumonia, the lungwort herbs not enough to tide him over.  

‘Are you interested in that one? It’s a good, reliable face. Works for any type of person.’  

‘I’m just looking,’ I reply.  

‘Come in, you can take a closer look. The cold is not good for a young lady like you.’ 

I follow the shopkeeper inside, too startled that he’d discovered I was a woman, my feet moving on their own. Unlike Yun, I keep my hair short and crop it with a pair of kitchen shears every two weeks, the tufts of hair hanging around my ears in uneven chunks. My eyes are more square-shaped, my chin more blunted, eyebrows thick like my unrefined calligraphy brush strokes. Most assume I’m a teenage boy, and I go along with it. Yun is enough women for both of us, plus fewer people approach me when I run deliveries or waste disposal trips.  

The shopkeeper pulls the face from the shelf, bringing it to me for closer inspection. He places it on a large, empty table and begins to measure its dimensions with the tape looped around his wrist. ‘A very versatile face. Nice dimensions too. You could be anyone in this: a beggar, a soldier of the ancient warrior class, a princess, a prince.’   

I take a step back and hold a hand up as though I need to defend myself against the old, homely shopkeeper.  

‘Sorry, I can’t afford this,’ I say even though it’s not technically true. If I persuade Yun, we could afford it, although that’d mean we’d be forced to subsist on expired storage items whether Yun wanted to break the law or not.  

‘That’s okay, we can do a trade too. A face for a face,’ the shopkeeper replies. 

I consider the deal. It’s a win-win situation: I get rid of this face and get a superior one at no cost. I could even accompany Yun and keep her safe during the Orchid Festival without resembling an ogre standing next to a heavenly maiden.  

‘Will it hurt?’ I ask. 

‘Not at all, just a pinch here or there, and it’ll take a few weeks of recovery for the face to assimilate with the rest of your body, but as long as you stay healthy, it’ll assimilate without an issue.’  

I agree to trade faces. As the shopkeeper begins the removal process, he tells me, ‘It’s a good thing you decided to visit. You’ve got such a nice face, and there have been a lot of face thefts lately. Rich people think they can obtain anything they want.’  

I feel his fingers lift away the edges of my face, peeling it like a membrane from a pomelo.  

‘But look, now there’s nothing to steal,’ he continues. I squint one of my eyes open to look at my freshly stripped face, now hanging in his hand. It looks gossamer, shimmering under the light, yet I can’t tell which features were mine. 

share this

Comments are closed.

Join our mailing list