I had been careful to ascertain if she was marked. She had no visible mark but that didn’t rule out the possibility of a latent mark. Most carriers of the mark, I had read, do not show any indication that they have it. The mark itself is a red circle of raised flesh. It is more raspberry red than angry skin red. It doesn’t look like an insect bite, pimple or rash. It is unmistakable as a sign that someone has been affected. For many years, people believed the mark brought about misery and a much shorter life. The mark caused cells to turn cancerous. The mark made its bearer more reckless and resulted in earlier death. Carriers were less intelligent. The mark, it was clear, was transmitted during deep philosophical conversations between two people (mass infection had been known to occur in cults and book clubs) when one leans his forehead against another person’s. (Few had even considered this practice before the mark became widespread.) In the land where the mark had originated, a tribe in Papua New Guinea who had the fortune of living in an isolated valley and the misfortune of an oil geologist discovering in their remote kingdom a massive reservoir of oil, in this tribe the mark was considered a sign of age and wisdom. Everyone of a certain age in the tribe had acquired the mark. But in the larger world the mark was regarded as dirty, a clear indication that the individual bearing the mark has been involved in deep philosophical conversations and was thoughtless enough to tap his forehead against someone who was infected.
I had been reclusive for many years during the spread of the mark. I had worked at my desk in my office. I had gone for long walks—alone. I was deeply engaged in philosophical thoughts of my own, but gradually realized I desired to share them with other people.
I suppose a cautious person would have asked whether someone he would engage in a deep philosophical conversation had been tested for the mark. The latency of the mark was responsible for its spread. It was estimated that among the conversing adult population one in three people carried the mark and didn’t know it. Since there was no health risk associated with the mark, Big Pharma didn’t chase down a cure—the mark was incurable and mostly secret.
But it seemed awkward to ask her whether she had the mark. And to be honest after we began to talk, I wasn’t really thinking about the mark at all. The pleasure of our conversation was such that she was willing to tell me things that many people kept hidden. We drank coffee despite the hour. We ate figs.
The following morning I was still energized by her words and wanted to return to our conversation. But I thought better of it. I had already risked contracting the mark. I don’t recall tapping her forehead with mine, but we had been deeply engaged, and I don’t recall not tapping my forehead either.
I examined my forehead in the mirror. It appeared unblemished, but the guide online said the mark never appeared overnight. It might take years for it to appear. It might never appear. There were people who carried the mark and didn’t know it. She could have marked me, and I could in turn mark others without knowing. I became alarmed to think I was carrying a secret mark.
I wanted to talk to her, but all pleasure in our meeting was drained as I began to think about the social consequences of being marked. It would be more difficult to find a job. Having conversations with unmarked individuals would be difficult, if not impossible.
I considered not calling her. I considered calling her. Finally I had to know. I called her. I told her I couldn’t meet her again.
“If you are calling me instead of not calling, to me that means you would like to talk again.”
“That is true.”
“You think I am marked,” she said.
“I should have told you before we talked. I assumed since you were so willing to talk to me that you either knew I was marked, or you yourself were marked. I should have told you.”
“It was late, and one thing led to another and I didn’t know if you were marked yourself.”
“I am not,” I said. “Or I was not.”
“A single time is unlikely.”
“A single time is all it takes,” I said.
“Being marked isn’t so bad,” she said. “It isn’t painful. It isn’t even a problem, except people do not want to be marked. The mark has very negative connotations. It only seems dirty; promiscuous talkers are marked. Do you believe that?”
“It wasn’t what I believe,” I said. “It is what people believe.”
I ended the call. I sat in my cool basement apartment listening to the night. I could hear people walking down the street deep in conversation. My roommate upstairs watched a movie where the various couples talked and talked. I could hear their voices, but I didn’t know what they were saying. I wanted to scrub and scrub myself. I wanted to take a vow of silence. But I may already be marked. To be marked would be a relief for my profligate tongue.
About the author:
I am the author of five collections of short stories including The Remains of River Names and The Moss Gatherers. My first novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award and won the 2006 American Book Award. My second novel, The Strong Man, was published in 2010. The Publication Studio recently released a collection of stories and a novel. My stories have appeared in First Intensity, The Clackamas Literary Review, Spork, Birkensnake, Opium, ZYZYYVA, and elsewhere. My fiction has won a number of prizes including The CityArtist Award from the City of Seattle, The Nelson Bentley Prize in Fiction from The Seattle Review and The Stranger Genius Award. I have an MA from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.