Once upon a time, there was a man with an offensive face. What the man’s face looked like depended on who was doing the looking. Someone who was offended by black people, should they chance to pass this man on a crowded street, would see a black face. Folks offended by white people saw a face that was country-club white. Misogynists saw a woman’s face. Misandrists beheld a man’s. People offended by happiness might see a smile, pure and true as a baby’s. Those offended by sadness might behold a frowning visage stained with glassy tears.
And if you offended yourself, you saw you strolling down that crowded street.
If Santa Claus offended you—well, guess who.
This man had no family and, for obvious reasons, had difficulty making friends. So he wandered the earth, travelling from country to country, from city to village, searching for anyone who was not offended by his face.
One chilly evening near the close of winter, the man was hiking along a country road. Ahead of him he saw another traveler approaching, a middle-aged man with long yellow hair and a luxuriant beard. The two men simultaneously halted when they came within ten feet of one another.
“Evenin’,” the bearded traveler said. A bulky canvas sack was slung over his shoulder.
“Evenin’,” said the other. “If you don’t mind me asking, friend, are you offended by my face?”
“No. How could I be? You don’t really have one.”
“All I see in the place where your face should be is, well . . . an oval of nothing.”
“Do you mean . . . an oval of blackness?”
“No, not blackness. It’s an oval of . . . nothing. Sorry, but it’s impossible for me to describe.”
“But are you not offended by this, this oval of nothing?”
“Not at all. I’m not offended by anything. I and my two friends squat at a campsite just down the road from here. My friends aren’t offended by anything either. That’s why we travel together. Hey, wait a minute. Are you . . . ? Are you The Man With The Offensive Face?”
Dropping his sack in the dust, the traveler came forward and clasped the man’s hand in his own, a broad smile punching through his beard. “We’ve heard of you, man! We’ve always wanted to meet you, in fact. You must come back to camp and meet my companions.”
The two men then continued down the road as the night grew darker and colder. A short time later, they abandoned the open road to follow a footpath that led off into the thick wood. The orange glow of a campfire flickered in the distance. Soon they reached a clearing where two forms sat around the campfire. One was an elderly man. The other was a young woman—mohawked with a face full of piercings.
The old fella stood up from his log. “Find some more of ’em?” he asked the bearded man.
“Yes, I did,” he said, dropping the heavy sack to the ground. “And that’s not all I found. I found The Man With The Offensive Face."
“You’re friggin’ kiddin’,” the wide-eyed woman blurted, perking up.
The celebrity guest shook both their hands. They too, when they looked at his face, saw only an oval of nothing.
“Any luck?” the bearded man then asked his friends.
“Nuttin,” croaked the old man. “Maybe we’ll git lucky wit’ cher new batch.”
The bearded man turned to their guest. “We’ve been burning piles of the book Fahrenheit 451 and roasting marshmallows over the resulting fire,” he explained. “It’s said that if you do this long enough, eventually the marshmallows become magical eggs from which tiny clones of Ray Bradbury are born. ’Been trying for three nights now, burning thousands of copies of the book, but all we’ve done is make a lot of ash and cook a lot of marshmallows. I myself have just returned from stealing and buying more copies of the book.” He pointed to the sack on the ground.
“My friends,” said the newcomer, “you’re slightly misinformed. To obtain what you seek you must not burn copies of this book. Instead, you must burn stories written about people burning copies of the book. I’ve seen it done myself."
“No shit,” marveled the punk woman just before she scurried over to her backpack to grab a spiral notebook and some pens.
The fabled guest sat down, warmed himself by the fire, waited quietly for his three hosts each to scribble a story on the sheets of paper passed out by the woman, stories about people incinerating piles of Fahrenheit 451.
When they finished, the three campers each speared a marshmallow on a stick, crumpled up their unedited, unsubmitted, unread stories, tossed them into the fire, and stuck their marshmallows out over the momentarily augmented flames. Not half a minute later, a tiny man tore out from each of the browning, softening marshmallows. And at that exact moment, the hearts of the campers exploded in their cages. Still clutching their sticks, all three fell dead into the fire, the flames rapidly enveloping their twitching bodies. The diminutive hatchlings jumped safely to the ground from their marshmallow-eggs, just barely escaping the blaze.
They were not miniature clones of Ray Bradbury. The man with the offensive face had lied.
He scooped up his three little offspring, licked them clean of sticky-sweet marshmallow goo, and cradled them to his bosom like a good mammalian father/mother. But the man found that his parental joy was tempered by grief for the three dead campers—those three souls who were offended by nothing. But nature was often cruel, and the man’s praying mantis-like act of reproduction was no exception.
He looked down into the tiny nothing-faces of his brood. His boys looked just like their old man. And the man loved each one of them unconditionally, even though he was slightly offended by their faces.
Copyright: © 2011 Douglas Hackle
Clyde Baker recently remarked, ‘I have seen the future of horror and his name is Douglas Hackle.’ Clyde Baker is the blind, homeless, illiterate crackhead who lives underneath Douglas’s dilapidated front porch--but hey, Clyde’s opinion counts too, damn it! Douglas reads and writes out of Northeast Ohio, where he lives with his wife and little boy. His short fiction has been published or accepted for publication in several online and print venues. Visit him at: http://douglashackle.