She had long, brown curls, a crisp white dress, and a firm chin. She had a face. Rene couldn’t wait to tell them about her.
She walked firmly up the path. And her face - eyes, nose, mouth, just like the paintings his parents had showed him! Rene never saw faces - well, not except for them, and their faces didn’t look like what faces were supposed to. And his own face in the mirror, of course, but that wasn’t real.
But there she was. Beautiful, Rene thought, though he was seven years old and hers was the first human face he had ever seen. He stood and stared, fascinated, as she reached the end of the walk and stood in front of him. He knew he should say something, but he could only stand, head tilted slightly to the left, and stare at her profile.
Finally, she turned and spoke to him. “Do you not speak?"
“I-I'm sorry,” he stammered. “It’s just that you’re so beautiful.”
“What do you know of beauty, boy? You are so young -- for you, beauty must simply be a reflection of the mother.”
Rene frowned. She had a face, but she talked just like the rest of them. More so. And she was not so old -- perhaps she had reached her twelfth year. Rene noticed she had not yet begun to grow breasts. But he was too struck to be too bothered by her condescension. Instead, he said, “But you are beautiful. I had never truly seen a face before seeing yours now.”
She giggled. “Flatterer.” She walked past him and into the house - into his house. What was she doing there? Rene sighed with relief as she went inside. He had revealed his secret, and she had passed it off as flattery. He would have to get better control of himself before he saw her again, even if she was a pompous twit.
“I met a girl with a face today,” he told them. “She’s going to live in my house.”
They turned their own faces to look at each other, like fresh peaches with lots of eyes, or perhaps like violins with beady string-ends. Then they looked back at him. “Why is this?”
“I don’t know,” said Rene. “I think she’s our nanny. I don’t see why we need a nanny. Mother manages just fine.”
“Nanny,” said the aliens to each other. “Nanny. Nanny.”
Rene waited until they were done with the word. “Do you think it means anything that she has a face?”
“No, her own face. Different. Like in a painting.”
They were still as only they knew how to be. “It means nothing.”
“How do you know?”
“Why did you ask us, if we did not know?”
“I wanted your opinion.”
They buzzed some more.
“Well, what do I do with a girl who has a face?”
"What do you do with a nanny?"
Rene frowned. "I think a nanny does more with me."
"Well, then. Let her. And we will see."
"You want me to bring her to meet you?"
"No, no," they all said. "No. No girls. Not with faces, not without faces. Nobody. Just you."
"All right," said Rene, a little disappointed. "If she's a real nanny, she'll want to take care of me. Keep an eye on me. All of that. It'll be harder to come see you."
"You will do it," said one of the aliens.
"You will manage," another agreed.
They were silent. "Tell us about the seashore," said one.
"Tell us what it is like."
Rene sighed. "People go to the seashore on holiday," he began.
The girl was not going to let him leave. Her name, Rene discovered, was Audrine, and she was part nanny, part ladies' maid, part maid of all work. He never called her Audrine, though. Names were for people who didn't have faces, so that he could keep track of them. She was just the girl.
She often returned the favor by calling him "boy," but Rene knew she could see other people's faces. She had wiped dirt smudges from his brothers' chins -- or so she had said. Rene could see neither chins nor smudges, and had to take her word for it.
"Boy," she said, "your mother says you are not to wander off."
"I won't wander."
"That is not an answer," she said.
"I am in charge, and I say it is not."
Rene sighed. "All right. What if I just amuse myself in the back parlor, then?"
"As you wish."
He gathered up the things he wanted and settled next to the sofa. Frustration, yes. He could use the apple for Frustration, but only if it was near the blue cloth, and perhaps the comb. He laid them out on the sofa, apple on the cloth, comb leaning. He stepped back. Almost. Almost Frustration. He hesitated a minute before choosing the quill pen. Yes, that finished it.
Then he sat down on the floor next to the sofa leg. He had a postcard, a penknife, some matches, a little porcelain man, and a broken feather. There was something, but it was at the tip of his brain. Pain? No, no, nothing so obvious. Completion? Ah, he had it. Loneliness. He scored the neck of the porcelain man with the penknife and then snapped the head off, neatly. He was trying to get the feather to balance on the headless body when Audrine found him.
"Rene! You little beast, you've broken it!" she said. "Oh, what a naughty boy you are. You won't get another of them just because you broke that one, let me tell you."
He looked up at her in amazement. "I don't want another." What was her face doing? It was all twisted up, with wrinkles on the forehead.
She noticed the layout on the sofa. "What's this?"
"You wanted to frustrate me? Well, you've done a good job of that."
"No," he protested. "It's not frustrating. It's Frustration."
"You, young master, are frustration," said the girl tartly. "I won't be surprised if your father spanks you for breaking your toys. Clean it up, and don't make messes in the parlor any longer."
Rene stared after her. He had thought that people with faces might be easier to understand, but there was no difference. He scooped the items carefully together and held the scarf around them, then made for the riverside bench where the aliens liked to find him.
They came soon after he got there. He laid the apple out for them, the cloth and the comb, and last the quill. "What is it?"
"Frustration," said the aliens, buzzing.
"I thought so," he said with satisfaction. "What of this one?" He started to show them Loneliness.
One of the aliens laid a hand on his wrist. "No. Do not finish it. We cannot bear it, once it is complete."
"But it is Loneliness," he pressed.
"Loneliness, yes," said one.
"Zzzzolitude," said another.
"So why couldn't she see them?"
"The girl again?"
"The girl, yes. She has a face. She has eyes, I've seen them. Why can she not see?"
"She is human."
"But I am human."
"We have heard."
"We see it in your arrangements. In your face."
"But the girl has a face!" Rene was near tears with the frustration of it all.
"You must show her."
"He wanders off," said Audrine.
"He always has," said Rene's mother vaguely.
Rene waited around the corner, fiddling with a comb.
"I don't know what to do with him," said Audrine. "When he doesn't wander off, he breaks things and leaves them all over the house, on the furniture, in the doorways. He won't stop breaking things."
Rene threaded a piece of twine into the comb, back and forth. Information, he thought. He would show it to Audrine. Even though she didn't seem to be listening.
"Your job entails stopping him, girl," said Rene's mother. "Do you forget why we hired you?"
"No, ma'am," said Audrine. Rene could tell she was angry. "But Rene is --"
"Rene is seven. He must learn better. He has always been an odd little boy. You must teach him."
Rene could hear that Audrine was not happy, and when she came around the corner, her face had made the bad lines again. He longed to smooth it out and make it clean like a piece of soap, but he didn't want to make the features go away. He just wanted them to be different. He held out the comb anyway. "Information," he said.
"Stop it!" She slapped his hand. He almost dropped the comb in surprise. "You are to become a credit to your family, do you hear? And a credit to me."
He cocked his head at her. "I can make Credit," he said. "If you let me have the pieces of my jumping jack back, and perhaps a potato, I will show you that --"
"You broke it!" she snapped. "You will not have it back, and you will not have another, not until you learn to stop all of this nonsense. A potato! What do you want with a potato?"
"Why do you never listen to what I show you?"
"Because it's like listening to a rubbish heap!"
Rene thought about trying to explain a rubbish heap to the aliens. "But rubbish heaps don't talk."
"Children!" she snorted. "You must learn not to be so literal."
"Yes. And you must speak when you are spoken to."
"You are speaking to me."
"You are being pert again! You must not be pert."
"Audrine, why are you here?"
Rene meant, why are you here with me, having a face, when the others do not? But Audrine sighed. "I don't think they have the money for another, better servant, Rene. And so you have me. And I am quite good enough."
"Of course," he said in confusion. Maybe if he made Sufficiency for her, she would see that.
She would not let him out to play near the rubbish heap, so he had to sneak around from the garden into it. The aliens were waiting.
"This is a rubbish heap."
They buzzed. They repeated nothing.
"Rubbish heap!" he said, a little louder. "It's where they put things when they don't understand them. Because the things don't let them talk any more."
"Apple core," said one of the aliens.
"Yes, there's an apple core. They're done with the rest of the apple."
Rene sighed. An apple core was part of Schooling. "No, just apple core."
"Core," they buzzed.
"No, no. It's just a rubbish heap. Do you understand? They're not saying anything. They're not even trying to say anything. It's just -- garbage."
"Apple core. Violin string. Sardine tin."
"Matchbook. With no matches."
Rene sat down on the ground and tried to make Rubbish Heap out of the rubbish heap, but it kept going wrong somehow.
Audrine found him there, deserted long ago by the aliens. Her frustration echoed up and down the street. Rene's younger brothers milled against each other nervously. Rene knew their faces would be twisted up, if they had had faces.
"What have I told you? Have you listened to a word? Your brothers are babies, and they know not to play in rubbish."
"I was trying to make Rubbish Heap."
"We already have one! What do we need with another?"
"So they can know it."
Audrine made an inarticulate noise. She grabbed him by the ear and hauled him into the house, up to his room. "And there you stay until I come for you again," she said. "Enough is enough!"
Rene stared at the walls of his room. He wanted to make Sufficiency, but the matches were missing, and the mirror was, too. But if he couldn't make Sufficiency, Audrine would never understand, and then it wouldn't matter that she had a face at all. Sufficiency wasn't like String Beans. There was only one way to say it.
He noticed the charcoal pencils he had gotten for his birthday, settled with a sheet of foolscap, and began to draw. It took two or three attempts to make the mirror to his satisfaction. By the time he was shading in the last of the matchstick, Audrine had returned.
"Drawing," she said. "That's good. Something a gentleman can do. Not breaking things, and no rubbish in the parlor. Very good, Rene. I'm glad you've learned your lesson." She leaned over his shoulder. "It's good, too. A lovely still life."
"Sufficiency," he said.
Their eyes met, and a shudder of understanding passed through her. "How do you do it?" she whispered.
"I've always talked to them. I always knew how."
"Who are they?"
"They come from the stars. They just want to understand."
She shuddered again. "So do I."
Rene shrugged helplessly and shoved the drawing at her. "Sufficiency," he said. "I couldn't make it for real, but I thought you might see it. If you'll get me the things, maybe I could reconstruct it. Then you'd see."
"No," said Audrine. "Oh, no. It's -- it's that again. What you've been doing all along."
"But now you're listening."
"I don't understand."
"Yes, you do. You saw Sufficiency. Here, I'll do another." He cast about his room for the objects that made something simple. He saw his wooden horse, a sock, and a harmonica. Perfect for Breadth. He started to lay them down.
"No," she whispered.
He looked up.
"You little star-touched thing," she said. "I can't make anything else of you. It would be folly to try."
"But that's all they want of me, do you understand? To wipe your nose and make you mind."
"But I can still --"
"I won't do it."
She plucked the pencil from his hand and shoved it into the middle of the bedclothes. Working swiftly she found his shoehorn and a box of hairpins from her pocket.
She made for him Decision.
He never saw her face again. Or any other.
The aliens buzzed. "Tell us again about star charts."
"Tell us icon."
"Tell us organza."
Rene picked up his pencil again and started to sketch.
(originally published in Would That It Were, January 2003)