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The Imperfection

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     One day, very soon after their marriage, Christine sat gazing upon her husband with a trouble in her countenance that grew stronger with each passing hour until she spoke out loud,
“Erik, has it never occurred to you that you could hide your scalp with a wig?”  
     Erik, who still sat in disbelief that she had married him at all, frowned and shook his head. 
“No, my wife. It has never occurred to me.”
“There is no reason why you should walk about with your head so exposed. They make lovely wigs, of real human hair. I shall procure you one.”
     Since she had become his wife, he allowed her to roam aboveground whenever she wished. He believed that she would always come back to him. One day, she produced for him a wig of dark, luscious, human hair. It was exactly the texture and color of hair that she would have wished for her husband. A husband she had chosen for herself. If she had ever had such a choice.
     He shivered in pleasure as she clipped the few locks of his stringy hair close to the skin and adjusted the wig over his scalp. She found it so attractive that she began to insist he wear it at all times. Even when he was merely sitting in his own sitting room. 
“If it does please my wife,” he would say when she urged him to put it on.
     Still, she would sit across from him, gazing upon him with a trouble in her countenance growing stronger with each passing minute until she spoke,
“Erik, has it never occurred to you that you could improve your complexion with make-up?”
     Erik, who still attempted to catch her eye like a dog hoping to find his master’s favor, grimaced and made a soft whimper.
“No, my wife. It has never occurred to me.”
“I believe there is a brand thick enough to cover everything. I shall procure you a jar of it and we shall experiment.”
     She later produced for him a glass tub of thick, glutinous make-up of the kind that Christine once used in her days on the stage. It gave him the exact hue and tone of the skin she would have wished for her chosen husband. 
     He sat patiently as she smeared the viscous beige liquid across each curve and depression of his skull. She worked especially hard to brighten the rings around his eyes. He shut his lids and savored the delicate feel of her fingertips upon him. They were so rarely upon him. He pretended that these were caresses of affection and not correction. 
     She sat back and smiled. She held up a mirror to his face; he quickly looked away.
“Don’t you see? It is so thick it covers your scars and veins perfectly. It has completely changed your coloring. You look almost healthy!”
     From that day on, she insisted that he apply make-up every morning before breakfast. He would sit solemnly at the breakfast table in his wig and his make-up and wonder when she would finally begin to love him. 
     Neither could eat the food before them. She sat across from him, the trouble in her countenance nearly bursting from her eyes. 
“Erik, has it never occurred to you that they might grow you a new nose? Modern science has progressed considerably since the year you were born.”
     Erik, who now found himself more alone within his marriage than he had ever been in all his wretched life, began to weep over his plate.
“Would you like for me to wear my mask to the table again, my wife?”
“No, Erik. The mask is really no more of a comfort to me.”
“My prosthetic then?”
“God no! The fakery is worse than the mask.”
     He began to sob. He covered his face with his hands and spoke through the spaces between his fingers.
“What can I do then? How can I please you?”
“You will come and speak to a scientist I have met recently. He is a true genius. I have told him all about you and he would very much like to help. He tells me that he could regenerate a nose for you.”
“That...cannot be true.”
“You mustn't question it. It is science. You have asked what you can do to please me. This. This would please me. It is not too much to ask of you, considering all that you have demanded of me.”
     Tears continued to fill his hands and trickle down his sleeves. She softened her tone.
“My love, just think of it. You could finally take me for walks in the park, just as you have always wanted.”
“I could do that now!” he cried. “I could wear my prosthetic and no one would know the difference. If you want to go for a walk with me, let us go now. Right this instant!”
“But I would know the difference.”
     He shuddered to remember the time when she had made a great show of burning his masks. She had once convinced him that his face was no longer a horror to her. But he knew now that it was all a lie.
“I repulse you!” he moaned.
“If it were another who had your face, perhaps. But not you. You do not repulse me, my love. For you are the voice. A voice so nearly perfect, as if crafted by the angels themselves. But I am not married to the voice. I am married to the imperfect body of the voice. It is that this defect in your visage shocks me as being the most conspicuous sign of your earthly imperfection.”
“Shocks you, my wife!” he cried, deeply hurt. “You cannot love what shocks you!”
     She rose from the table and rushed to his side. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed his head against her waist. Snot smeared across the bodice of her dress.
“I have misspoke, Erik. I shall never speak of it again.” 

     He often played the piano and sang sweet songs of love to her. Hearing his voice so perfect and unearthly, she found that the defect at the center of his face grew more and more intolerable with every passing moment of their married lives. It was his fatal flaw, his stamp of the ephemeral, the symbol of his liability to decay and death. The proof that he was not, and had never been, an angel. 
     Christine’s own unwholesome mind had rendered the hole a frightful hollow, causing her more trouble and horror than Erik’s voice had ever given her delight or ecstasy. She mourned the life that might have been, the spouse she might have had, the man she could have loved instead.  
     She ran her hands through the smooth hair atop his head as he made love to her. But she turned her face away from his kiss. She always turned her face away. The black hole at the center of his face was the abyss down which all her love had fallen and died. 
     Erik learned to shudder beneath the weight of his wife’s gaze. He knew that within the crater of his nose she had stuffed all the anger and resentment over her abduction. It had become the focus of all her ill feelings towards him. The target of all her hate.
“Christine,” he murmured solemnly from across their bed. “I know not what may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this wretched deformity. But perhaps it is worth asking this scientist of yours if there is in fact a possibility, on any terms, of regenerating this part of me.”
“Dearest Erik,” she whispered at him through the darkness of their bedroom. “I have spent much thought upon this subject. I have seen what he can do. I am convinced there is a possibility.”
“If there be the remotest possibility of it, let the attempt be made. Whatever the risk. My life is nothing if I am to be only the object of your horror. I would do anything for the mere possibility that you might one day love me.”
“Oh, Erik...”
“Take me to your scientist. Save me from this madness.”

     Christine held his cold hand as she led him over the threshold of the laboratory. The scientist  welcomed them and shook Erik’s hand as if he were any ordinary man. As he explained the procedure, she gave Erik a reassuring smile and held his arm with more affection than she had ever shown him before. 
     The scientist brought before them a sad little plant, withered and dying, leaves spotted and worm-holed. He poured over it a clear shimmering liquid from a crystal vial. There was an awful sizzle and hiss. The little plant seemed to bend over in agony and then suddenly stood upright. A vivid green spread from the root to the tips, eating away at the dry brown of death. Before their very eyes the plant was restored to vivacious health. Even the worm-holes had been filled in with new growth. 
     Christine clasped her hands with joy.
“You see my darling! You too shall be restored thusly.”
     For the first time, she looked upon him with the adoration he had so longed for. Plotted for. Worked for. None of his own machinations had brought him here. It was all Christine and her belief that he could be made whole. 
     This was no scientist - trickster recognized trickster - but if one sip of this foul liquid was all it might take for her to love him, then, despite all the instinct of his intellect, he would down the crystal goblet handed to him by the quackster without so much as a question.
“Like water from a heavenly fountain…” Erik mumbled as he felt it move through his veins. He suddenly felt quite faint. The scientist helped Christine to remove his shoes and pull his feet onto the little cot upon which he had been sitting. She lovingly covered him with a thin blanket and sat by his side as the elixir took effect. 
     He fell into a deep sleep during which he tossed and turned and gave his life’s testimony of suffering and violence. He was made to walk through hell before reaching a peaceful rest. She held his hand and spoke to him in a soothing voice,
“It will be over soon, my love. And then we can be happy together. It will all be perfect now, you will see.” For though she had begun to doubt the efficacy of the elixir, she had been moved deeply by his efforts to please her. They were enough for her own damaged heart to begin to mend.
     But then a strange glow took hold of his face. He had not worn his make-up on that day, so that the scientist might better appraise his condition and progress. Christine witnessed the color of his skin change from a sickly, jaundiced yellow to a healthy rose in just a matter of minutes. The dark rings of his eyes lightened, his sleeping lids were brought forward, unsunk from their sockets. The gaunt crevices of his cheeks filled out with fat and flesh. Even the funeral scent of him lifted. And then the most marvelous movements began to occur around the edges of his nasal cavities. 
     Christine cried out in disbelief as cartilage constructed itself into a bridge across the two holes. The tissue around the holes unfurled and connected along the ridge of the most handsome aquiline nose she had ever seen. It was the face he might have had. A face to match the beauty of his voice, the genius of his mind. A face to deserve all the love she held for him. 
“Erik!” she whispered close to his face. “My Erik, you are so beautiful.”
     He stirred at her words and opened his eyes. Brought close to the surface, no longer did they appear hollow and dead. They still flickered in their unnatural way and he looked very much alive. 
     The scientist came in and was greatly excited by the condition of his patient. He presented a mirror to Erik and when he attempted to look away Christine’s hand caught his jaw and forced him to see the success that had been achieved. 
“Look, my darling! Just look at this perfection,” she cried, tears of love overflowing down her face.
     His eyes filled with an infinite sadness.
“Poor Christine,” he said. 
“Poor? No! Richest, most favored bride am I! At last we shall be happy together and we shall take long walks in the park on sunny Sunday afternoons, like any other normal couple. We shall learn to love each other properly. I shall be such a good wife, you shall see. Oh, my darling, my love…”
“My poor Christine,” he said weakly, though his cheeks still burned brightly with life. “You have tried so hard to love me. Do not repent that by your demands you have rejected the very best that I could offer you: a mere rotting corpse. Your desires were only natural.”
“I do not understand,” she said.
“You have always deserved a living husband and I am dying, dearest Christine. Dying!”
“No, that cannot be,” she said with panic. She turned to the scientist and demanded an answer. But he had none. He had always been clear that it was but an experiment, never before proven. That a nose had grown at all was the highest possible achievement on his part. 
“But you have only just been reborn, my love!”
“What is death, but rebirth?”
     She gathered up her husband’s thin frame in her arms and pressed her face to his chest, as if she could hold onto his spirit and force it to remain there in his now-perfect body. 
“Don’t go!”
     But the moment the skin of his nose had grown over, his spirit had begun to detach itself from his ribs one by one. Death was his very essence; what could he ever be without it? 

 

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PDF of "The Birth-Mark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Here