I read from my new book the past few days and it went well and I enjoyed it and the food was fine and the wine was just right and I was happy and they seemed to enjoy it.
During the last question and answer session, a twenty-something woman stood up and established herself as a non-fiction writer, a journalist, with an inquisitive mind, and she believes small details can truly reveal a person more than the longest discourse with them. I expected a question about Siberia, or about one of our cabinmates on the journey, or the food, or my son, or anything anyone might ask, only smaller and with more detail. But no:
“How did you get that scar on your cheek?”
I sipped my water, and several attendees seemed suddenly uncomfortable. It felt like a 19th century question, like she should have been standing too close in some flowing corset gown and I would sip cognac in some dapper suit, and she’d say, “Tell me Robert,” putting her finger just a little too close to my face, “how did you acquire this scar? Do tell.”
But she was a j-student working on her masters, took copious notes during the reading, and sat with her pierced, tattooed boyfriend.
I touched my face. “I forget, to be honest.”
She nodded, and I knew she was thinking about it, wanted to push me, since she must have noticed it too big to “forget,” but she held enough decorum to let it go. But my host? No such luck. “You wrote about it, though, Bob, didn’t you?” he called from the back of the room. “Unless that is different.”
“I did write about a scar, but, ironically enough, this time I wrote about a different scar; The Iron Scar.” Everyone laughed. “Shall I tell you how I arrived at that title for a book about the Siberian railway? They encouraged me to do so. And I did, and she took more notes, and her boyfriend listened intently, and my host kept the pace and let it go.
But he was right. And here is the piece which appeared first in Southern Humanities Review and later the collection Borderline Crazy. But I should say that since the reading my mind has tumbled into a place I’d not thought about for quite a long time. We wonder what it is that will trigger a memory. Usually it is an aroma–smell is the strongest catalyst for recall. Often a photograph. But without really thinking about it, when she asked, I touched my cheek, almost as if to see if the scar was still there, if that part of my life really did happen, and my mind just kept spinning away.
I have a scar on my cheek from a jagged section of chain link fence. But that is not what I told my son when he was two and ran his finger across it. One hand rested behind my neck the other outlined the scar, or pushed it, or pulled at it. “How did this happen, Daddy?”
I would smile, and with a story-telling voice, say something different each time, like: “I was escaping from a lioness when I accidently stepped on her cub, and just as I dove off the edge of the waterfall, her right paw clawed at my face.”
“Wow!” he responded, amazed for a moment, and then, “No, really. How did you hurt your face?” I’d laugh that laugh we use to dismiss what we said as recognizable nonsense, as if what we are about to say is the real story, and I would tell him “I fell off a train in Mexico and when I rolled safely into the Sonoran Desert, a scorpion stung me. Since I had no antidote for such stings, I had to dig out the poison myself with a dull pocketknife.” I would set Michael back down on the floor and he’d run off satisfied, not with the truth but with adventure, mystery, and more to think about. His vocabulary and imagination gathered these non-sequiturs—scorpion, lion, desert, waterfalls—and they would dance in his mind as he made up his own tales of near-death encounters and narrow escape.
At night I read Curious George to him and when the stories were finished, he would lean against me and ask what’s new or how my day was. And then after a few minutes of silence he might say, “Daddy. It wasn’t a scorpion.”
“What do you think it was?”
“I think you were born that way.”
“Well I wasn’t. I can show you pictures.”
“Well, then it must have happened at work. I think a student did that to you.”
“I’m sure many have wanted to, but none have tried…yet…so that isn’t it.”
I would think a minute and say, “Son, honestly, it was a rabid vulture,” and he would sneer at me, laugh, and jump off the couch exclaiming, “I guess it’s time for bed.” After he ran off, I would sit and think awhile; kids do that to you. They say something, or ask, or sometimes just laugh a certain way that rakes up what had been settled matters, and you can’t help but think awhile before heading up and tucking them in and letting them know everything is fine and that you’ll be fine and when they wake up, you’ll be there, safe and whole, albeit with a few imperfections.
Scars are not unusual. For some, they are the unfortunate leftovers of disease, for others battle scars not treated or tended to, or untreatable. And for some they are souvenirs, notches on the skin akin to those carved on walking sticks or gun barrels. George Washington had scars left over from Smallpox, as did Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whom as a result was called “Pocky.” When Andrew Jackson was a boy, a British officer demanded Jackson shine the officer’s shoes. When the boy refused, the soldier cut his forehead with a saber—a mark which the future President of the United States did not hide.
George Custer’s younger brother, Thomas Ward Custer, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, was shot in the face by a confederate color bearer when Custer reached for the man’s flag. The younger Custer killed the confederate and carried off his flag only to be shot and killed eleven years later beside his brother at Little Big Horn. Ironically, Crazy Horse had also survived a shot to the face, his by a war chief whose wife he stole. Go figure.
Me, well, I can still taste the dust, smell the rotten fruit of the nearby marketplace. I can still feel the fence, not on the way in but on the way back out.
When Harriet Tubman was young, an overseer threw a weight at her head which not only caused seizures most of her life but left a “horrific scar” which she said never let her forget “the horrors suffered during slavery.” A glance in the mirror may remind some of a tragic event, but that same memory might serve as inspiration, the signature of survival, the markings of the moments they overcame unthinkable odds. The picture of the slave’s back whipped to shreds and left to heal like a topographical map is also a document of inhumanity recorded for posterity. Branded numbers on holocaust survivors’ forearms forever keep alive the knowledge that evil walked these lands. Scars are history; they infect our psyche with sometimes unconscionable reality to make our history present. They are proof we survived our past despite odds, sometimes despite logic.
Some marks are merely fictional scars which, because of literature and film, are closer to legend than falsities teased by a father to his son. Harrison Ford’s marked chin comes from a car accident at twenty, but has since become an asset, a distinctive feature and part of his personality, even incorporated into the storyline of movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss exchange stories in Jaws of which sharks left their teeth marks on their legs. The scars render pride in their ability to survive. These souvenirs and conversation starters carve their credibility into bone, and they read like brail to tell us that these people have been there.
But who we are is more than the aesthetic; we are all branded in one way or another. The injury, disease, or self-inflicted wound caused the mark, but our character traits, from malicious villain to a hero with integrity are what we see. In both fiction and reality, the imperfection is just that because of its diversion from “normal.” Most people do not have scars, not visible ones. So when someone does expose such diversion from the expected aesthetic, judgment often follows. “If not for the wound,” they say; “He should have done something about it,” they say; “He should get it taken care of and move on,” some say. Of course, I didn’t seek out the wound like some scarification ritual; it isn’t an African osilumi—a mark of sorrow made after the passing of a loved one. It isn’t for fashion, similar to the tattoo-like Mehndi in India. It isn’t even political or ethnic as most African traditional markings. Some scars prove the woman can meet the demands of childbirth; some symbolize lost children either during childbirth or to slavery. And slaves themselves were branded or scarred to make less attractive or more noticeable. In other locations scars were burned or cut and then left to heal on their own to mark temples or foreheads or forearms for the pride or disgrace of a group. And paleontologists trace scarification to 50,000 BC.
When Michael was three, he slipped on monkey bars at a park and hit his head on the crossbeam. He wrapped himself around me and cried, but it was only when I checked to see if he had a bump that I noticed a hole in his forehead where a bolt on the beam had punctured his skull above his eye. Ultimately, he was fine, and his tears quickly resulted not from pain but because we left the park to go to the hospital where they sewed him up and we went home. More than two decades later there really isn’t any scar, but for a few years when he was little it was obvious. For others the scar briefly took attention away from his head of thick curls. For me it was a crevice through which I traveled back to that moment, my shirt covered in blood, his piercing screams, the hole in his head. The scar is no longer visible. The markings of that moment of impact cannot keep pace with the persistence of my memory.
Years may pass before someone once again asks what happened. And by then, what happened often gets watered down and what seemed to happen takes over. Then, the story is either exaggerated or forgotten altogether.
Until you touch the cheek.
A border patrol guard asked for my papers but actually wanted another payoff. I can still smell rotten fruit; taste the red dust. That was more than three decades ago; that was just now. You see a scar; I smell sweat, I hear the low buzz of a generator not far away, the diesel sound of a truck. I smell rotten fruit and feel the tug of children begging for money. You barely see the unevenness of my face; I feel and taste the sweetness of my blood dripping into the corner of my mouth, I taste the significance of a terrifying moment. Sometimes the worst of our scars marks the best of who we were at that point in our lives.
After the monkey bar incident, Michael and I returned home from the hospital, his head bandaged and a new book in his hands. We moved on. The physical wounds of war or personal battles are transient. Even when they seem permanent, they fade to some accessory-like marking, barely noticeable for seeing it all the time. No, the wounds which usually keep opening are the stinging reality of memory which wakes us at three am. For someone it is the love which melted into hatred and bitterness; for someone else it is the belittling by siblings, spouses, parents; it is the cuts on the wrist; the two-thirds of a man; the inability to vote—look at their scars, just under the skin, healed, forgotten, and then like magma rise out to flow through months and years, to grab us and say, “Yeah, now you remember.” It’s the vet. It’s the abused wife. It’s the battered child, the neglected, the forgotten, the Jew, the Serf, the back of the bus, the separate water fountain, the depression; the depressed. You can touch my scars, run your finger along the ragged edge where skin never really met skin again, and find some tale there, but it might be closer to myth. It can never be simply facts and dermatology. Really, it could totally have been a hot curling iron; no, a kitchen knife. Cancer. Ask me again, and I swear I will tell you the truth this time. The thing is: the truth never completely heals.
Maybe I was born this way. Perhaps my DNA bends toward crossing borders. It is possible I simply was not cut out to keep intact, and these scars have always been just below the surface waiting for the right place and time. Check points and jagged fences might have been inside somewhere while I was still gathering adventurous words and fantastic ideas.
That night after the hospital, on the couch after listening to me read him another story from one of his books, Michael touched his forehead, freshly stitched and bandaged, and then touched my face. “Will I have a scar like yours?” he asked, paying more attention to his bandage.
“No, of course not,” I said.
“How come?” he asked, and I truly wasn’t sure if he was curious or actually disappointed.
“Well, the doctor fixed yours right away and it won’t be long before it isn’t there anymore. But I couldn’t get medical help for a while.”
I pulled his hand away from his bandage. “Well,” I said. “Once I pushed the mother dingo away from my head and pulled her paw far enough away to come out of my cheek, I had to rush her cubs to a vet to get them care.”
He was quiet, opened his book and fingered his forehead, then said. “Daddy, you can do better than that.”