The Sackheads

I was there when they shut the city gates. We had gathered in the Square, most of us fearful of the sickness spreading in the lands beyond, about which the travellers’ tales spared no gruesome detail, but a few—and I remember well their torrid faces bathed in the eerie autumn twilight—frantic to escape, screaming as they clawed at the cold stone walls, the guards, themselves, before being dragged away. How prescient they in hindsight were. Perhaps they truly saw our faceless fate foretold. After all, is a tomb not but a vault expired?

Soldiers manned the gates in dreary half-day shifts, but no patrols went out, and not a soul was let within the walls. We heard sometimes the terrible cries of those turned back, and that awful refrain: “By order of the Council, none shall enter!”

But some did enter, by darkness covered or by tunnel. There were even rumors that some passed by black magic: a sacrifice made; a secret word exchanged. Yet whatever their method of infiltration—or perhaps none, and the sickness had been with us all along—the consequence was the same. The sickness appeared, flared and spread.

The first case identified was in the Money Quarter. The victim, a merchant, was found on blood soaked sheets, facial skin heaped beside him and gold coins pressed into his exposed flesh. He had scratched off his nose and clawed out his eyes, but he was still alive when they took him. The Council studied him for days as he suffered, but we all knew the outcome. The tales had been true.

The gates remained shut.

The sickness triggered an insatiable urge to mutilate and expunge one’s own face. The means varied, from bare hands to the most creative use of objects, but the result was the same: facelessness. There was no cure or respite. Every affliction culminated in a bloody act of self-effacement.

Not every afflicted died. Some survived and carried on. We called them the sackheads, after their custom of covering their disfigured heads with burlap sacks on which they had painted the most grotesque and hideous faces. Misshapen eyes, inverted noses and snarling, toothless mouths in angular smiles that mocked the very notion of happiness.

There was also a second group: people like me, whom the sickness spared. We called ourselves the facemores, and against a backdrop of dread we gathered secretly and rejoiced in our health—for a time. For as the sickness advanced, the sackheads began to outnumber us, and with their number grew jealousy.

The sackheads staged their first smash-and-burn on a dreary November night. Door-to-door by torch light they went, searching for facemores, whom they dragged into the streets and theatrically debased, and whose faces they physically destroyed. Then on their heads they placed sacks with sad, inverted smiles, and left them to bleed through and die.

I write this now with a shaking hand, for I see the flickering light.

A knock.

“By order of the Council—”

They’ve come!