‘The Face of the Guilty’ by Dawid Juraszek

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The break-up was predictably awful.

He cried and begged and threatened, and then stormed down the path, and then rushed back, and cried, begged, threatened some more. Throughout all that Magda was on autopilot, timing this task, with the next one firmly in mind. She had three things to do today and this one had to be over by lunchtime.

She tried not to look at his face. She knew all too well that there was guilt all over it, the guilt of self-indulgence and wilful denial that she hated and never understood. His face was that of the generation that refused to change while there was still the slimmest of chances. The generation that wanted to keep things normal.

Magda’s generation.

So she looked down, at the dead leaves around the bench, or past him, towards the trees. It only made things worse. Which was good.

She was about to leave when he finally gave up. Was there a hint of relief in his look? Something to do with her constant “lifestyle guilt trips” and “green fatalism,” as he used to call it? She did not care. They parted and she moved on.

She had a quick lunch of sautéed lotus root with a selection of fruit salads and walked to the school.

Slowing down outside every classroom, Magda peered inside through the clear glass door lights. The kids’ faces were those of the generation that would not be given a chance to make any difference. She could not understand and accept that. Still, they were guilty – as all humans were by the very fact of being human, no matter what choices they would make. Trying to keep things normal, even if it meant the end, was what humans would always do, as long as there were any left. Kids included.

Magda recoiled when one of them caught sight of her through the door light. She had destroyed their love for her the previous day, shouting just loud enough to terrify them. She could have shouted louder, made a scene, gotten thrown out. But that would have caused repercussions that might interfere with other tasks. So she hadn’t.

She knocked at the door of the principal’s office. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, she handed him her letter of resignation. She endured bitter words of disappointment and stern reminders of contractual obligations, trying not to stare at his face, the face that emanated his generation’s attachment to the normal she refused to understand.

She could have said she would keep teaching till the end of the term, but that would be a lie. She wanted to end it there and then, so she accepted responsibility and a penalty for the breach of contract. Through all the necessary dealings with the paperwork, she kept her eye on the clock. Finally it was all done. Only one task remained.

She had a quick dinner of braised okra with a selection of fruit salads and walked to the hospital.

Magda’s father was ready. It had been his choice, after months of careful deliberation. The doctors and nurses had prepared everything for her arrival. And so now she sat at the edge of his bed, looking into his eyes hollowed out by pain, and saying all the words and making all the gestures she was supposed to. She had played this moment in her head through too many stifling nights and hazy days to now go wrong.

The button was pressed, the liquid flowed through the plastic tube, the breath stopped.

Magda looked for the last time at the face of her father, the face of the generation that engineered it all with the careless abandon she always failed to understand, committed to their normal lives, unaware of the outcomes, but no less guilty for that.

She met with the officials she was supposed to meet with, signed the papers she was supposed to sign, and then she was free.

She left the hospital and stood there, in the darkening night of the city and of the world, having no more goodbyes to say, no more ties to cut, no more bonds to break.

She walked back home through the night, slipped off her shoes in the dark hallway, stood barefoot on the bathroom floor and washed her hands in cold water with tallow-free soap, looking down at nothing.

When she finally looked up, in the dark mirror she saw the blank outline of her face.

The face of the guilty.

No matter her lifestyle, her efforts, her sacrifices. No matter what she did or didn’t do. No matter how hard she tried to atone for her complicity in destroying the living world. Her very existence was bringing the end that much closer, using up the resources, adding to pollution, to climate collapse.

She didn’t want to punish anyone else. Not that they didn’t deserve to be punished. She simply didn’t have it in her. But now that the people who cared about her were either gone or stopped caring, she could punish herself.

The place, the time, the method had been prepared. The tasks leading up to the end had been fulfilled. All she had to do now was take the final step.

And yet, now that she could, Magda felt she would not go through with it. The end was close, but she could not face it. Or maybe she could not face it because it was close. She tried to understand herself, and had to give up.

She splashed cold water on her face and started patting it with a bath towel. It was dry, plush, warm, fresh. She stopped, overcome with the sensations.

Dry, plush, warm, fresh.

As if everything was normal.

She felt the understanding rise within her, and buried her face in the towel to smother a scream.

Dawid Juraszek is a lecturer in literature and culture of English-speaking countries at a university in Guangzhou, China. His academic background is in English, translation studies, educational leadership, international relations, and environmental management. A published novelist, his fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in a variety of outlets in his native Poland, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

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