I don’t know how old I was when I realised I didn’t know what my father looked like. I think I must have known, once, when I was so young that the memory didn’t leave its impression. When I was so young that I was only half a person, and therefore only required half the guardedness. But from what exists of my memory, his face is like an old-time photograph: a composite of features assembled into an individual, but stiff somehow, posed, washed in sepia tones leached of real energy. I was seven years old when Baba first took us to see a bianlian show for Chinese New Year. Didi was so scared he cried. Mama had to take him aside, hold him in her arms and kiss him on the forehead until the faces stopped spinning in front of his eyes, until he only saw her face, calm and sweet and familiar. But I was not afraid of the facechanger. Dressed in a flowing brocade robe, with an ornate headpiece, he leapt about the stage to the beat of the drums like a mad emperor. With every swish of his cape his face flashed. One second it was red and shrieking; the next it winked into a white cat’s face, with sharp slanted eyes and a curious mouth. I was so small Baba had to carry me so I could see the stage above the crowd. With my arms curled around his neck, I could twitch my fingers to tickle his chin. I could grab the scruff of his scraggly beard. I wonder, if I had held on tight enough and pulled, if Baba’s face would have come undone.
He kept Siamese fighting fish, one red and one blue, divided by a piece of black cardboard. He percolated around them. He read extensively on the proper care of bettas. He changed their water dutifully, suctioning out their shit from the gravel that lined the bottom of the tanks. He planted swaying fronds and rock caves. He hauled home buckets of wriggling larvae to feed them with, every nine p.m. on the dot. In the glass of the tanks, a split-second reflection before the ripples dispersed it, I once thought I caught a glimpse of him. A fun fact, that I found out while reading up on bettas myself: the male bettas are devoted fathers. They build nests with their mouths for their babies, and will defend them fiercely from predators. I have seen what I think is his true face, but only in flashes, like the mirage in the glass. In the steam of a fresh red bean bun, left on my desk when I wasn’t looking. In the flash of headlights in the rearview mirror, slicing contours in his face I didn’t know existed. In the vibrations of the Beatles vinyl, the chrome black of its surface. In the grid of tennis nets he forced me to play as a kid, a mosaic of his face cut up by gossamer strings. I thought I maybe saw it in the wince when he came home from soccer one day with his knee torn up and bloody; the hiss through his lips as he drizzled sharp disinfectant sliced through something in his face, peeled back for a moment a layer. But it was a gust, a Marilyn moment; a second later he was patting down the gauze and it was gone again.
There is once I came close. I was about to go off to college in a faraway city for four years, and I suppose he thought that now, if ever, was the time to squeeze in a father-daughter moment. A Talk. A parting gift. He drove me to a café near our house and we took opposite seats, me with my mocha frappuccino and him with his long black. In the hiss of the espresso machine somewhere in the back, the general clatter of teaspoons, settled the prickly, gangly weight of the fact that we had never done this before. We had never been anywhere alone together, not since I learned to speak, probably. Cut off from his usual safety net of the paternal dinner table, of my mother’s cheerful chattering and emotional parenting, my father flinched like a reborn man cast into a new, too-bright world. In between wisps of caffeine steam, I saw him come to the realisation that having invited me here to talk, he would have to talk. This was the same man who refused to lose face. His response to embarrassment or perceived failing was to swell up like a puffer fish. When one would expect regret he wore red, furrowed brows; when one would want apology he wore blankness, thin lips. Fingers jabbing at the TV remote and pressing on the handle of a knife, cutting a melon to offer in slices. But this was it, this was the farewell, this was a last-ditch chance to impart words to his daughter before she went off and began a new life, and I saw him floundering. We made sputtering, awkward conversation, like a cataclysmic first date. I pretended not to see him reaching, struggling with the inflexible tautness of his face. When tears of frustration sprang to his eyes and he wiped them away with the back of his rough hand, burying his ungiving face in the coffee steam, I looked away and studied the menu, filial.
A bianlian performer is like a magician. The audience cannot be allowed to see how they change their faces. The effect must be seamless—no twitching hand, no telltale flick of the chin. For the length of the song, the watchers must be so baffled, so entranced, so engulfed in the illusion, that their grip on reality is suspended. They must believe, for as long as the performer needs them to, that the carousel of masks really is all there is; that the ease in which the performer switches between them, like breathing, must mean that it is simply a part of their natural form. The performer is like them, and yet not; a being slightly separate, straddling dimensions, an untouchable, undefeatable spirit defying all known laws of the universe. Most of all, the bianlian performer must not lose his face. If the mask falls off, the show concludes, and he has failed his role. If the mask falls off, he is no longer the bianlian dancer. He is only a man in fancy robes.
A man: Baba, fighting fish. A man: Baba, tau sa bao. A man: Baba, rearview mirror. Baba, John Lennon. Baba, tennis nets. Baba, grazed knee. Baba, long black. Baba, formaldehyde.
When a mortician prepares a body, the first thing they attend to is the face. They shut the eyes, secure the eyelids in a facsimile of sleep. They close the jaw and wire it shut, loop a suture along the gums, through the nostrils, burrowing through the septum. They make you smile like an old peaceful master. They paint the face to bring back its colour—powder on the forehead, pink on the cheeks and lips. The effect is not quite believable; the texture is flaky, the mouth too rosy. But I stand here in my white dress looking over the coffin, and all I can think is that it is too real, and I have ruined the show. That I have seen past the illusion before the applause; that I have seen a face I was not meant to see. Baba, his muscles arranged in an undertaker’s eye; Baba, quiet, sleeping, gone. Curtain call, bared, finally, with no embellishment and no pretence, no prearranged dramatic beats to follow. This is now a one-way show, with everything in the eye of the beholder. And he is so close. So still. He could not move away if he wanted to; he can’t want anything. I feel ensconced in an invisible grip, a world in an invisible crowd that is him and me wide. I could simply reach out and touch his face. Discover, once and for all, which is real.
Wen-yi Lee is from Singapore and likes writing about girls with bite, feral nature, and ghosts. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Speculative City, Luna Station Quarterly, and Sword & Kettle Press, among others, and has been featured by Tor. She can be found on Twitter at @wenyilee_.