The Face Readers

To find the face readers of Yongchuan, China, take the most crowded bus in town. When the doors squeal open and people spill out, weave through them, elbows flared. Pay the toll—a single RMB—and hustle to the back. It will be a long ride. Get out at the sixteenth stop—count, because now matter how loudly the mechanized female voice cries, “Dáo le,” the happy gurgling of children, the terse gunfire punctuation of important cell phone conversation, the squawking of chickens, and most of all the long, strident drawl of small talk in the local dialect will swallow it up. Wedge into the wake of others disembarking. Adopt a boxing guard. Use shoulders, throw hips. No one will mind.

Cross the street at the old man selling roasted chestnuts. Take in the smells, pungent, savory, dubious, thick. The sidewalk teems with people, but it is a gentle current, and it will flow in due time past that avenue of mystery, where the face readers sit silent, waiting.

The shops blur together, the bright red signs blazoned with great bloated proclamations of deals and discounts. Pop music jounces out of each store and gets jumbled up with its neighbors, while shop workers shriek advertising slogans at the ambling crowd. Turn left at the KFC to swap the rumbling of speakers and megaphones for the blasting of car horns. The flood of people turn here too, and expand, swelling past the banks of the sidewalk and spilling over into the road to chase buses or flag taxis.

Follow the river—the real, wet, watery one, brown and slimy. A low stone wall has replaced the shops now, prettily carved and splotched with moss and mud. A few men lean against this wall, and fishing poles in turn lean beside them, while far below the dark river squats stagnant. The human tide flows more strongly still, and gathers up more shoppers and students and business people, the very old and the very young, everyone, inexorably. This river pulls, pushes. Submit. Walk on.

As the shops fall farther behind, benches and trees appear on the widening sidewalk, and little crowds have collected in some places. Most of these watchers are elderly. They shuffle tightly together on benches, and where there is nowhere to sit, they squat, settling comfortably with hips low to the ground, heels flat. In the centers of these groups, old men and women are singing old, old songs.

They clutch microphones that feed into hoarse, ragged speakers, and there is exultation on each of their faces. Operatic vibratos rise in awful counterpoints to each other every twenty feet. Wince, but soak in the bent, worn bodies rocking slowly to the sounds and the hands that are older than the People’s Republic sweeping upward with each rise of melody.

There are vendors just beyond the singers, sitting on folding chairs before folding tables or, more commonly, sitting cross-legged on a tarp with their wares spread before them. Here is a man with a single turtle for sale, leashed with a thin red thread. It is expensive, and perhaps illegal, and to someone represents a precious, desperate cure. Others have roots, grasses, mushrooms, powders, salves—a few have animal skulls or feet. One woman has given the center of her tarp over to a massive vertebrae. Beside her, seated at a table, a young woman sells iPhone covers and flashdrives. A few vendors down, a man is selling pirated DVDs from a wheelbarrow, while his neighbor is arranging a display of Nike Air Max shoes.

And now the sidewalk diverges, parting around a line of trees. Follow the river—the wet one. Paddle through the sea of bodies, just as swimmers are taught to make for shore—patiently, on a smooth diagonal, never challenging the current. Step free, and the face readers are there.

It is much quieter here. The face readers sit alone. Some read from little prayer books. Some are bent over smart phones. Some, here and there, are leaning forward to gaze into the faces of others who have come to find them. These will look deep, hard, and then will write on a little pad of paper before them, and some will speak—and then they will look again, eyes combing faces for secrets, for tiny folds and curves where the future hides.

Each face reader has a long, large paper laid out on the ground beside him. On it is a face, speckled with tiny, perfect dots. Advertisement, map, reference, conman prop, scripture? Perhaps it is only a mirror, a magic portal that teases a glimpse through the eyes of the face readers. Look long, but only they can find meaning there.

Now, choose one among their number. Take a seat on the little plastic stool before him. Pay him what he asks, and then be still.

Wait while he looks, pours his eyes across your face. Sit quietly, even if it seems silly, as he runs his gaze across every angle and crease. The urge to giggle, to grin nervously, to talk, will seep away, because no one, never, not even once in your life, will ever look at your face as the face reader does, who is, even now, counting your eyelashes and measuring your mouth and memorizing every wrinkle in the corner of your eyes.

He raises his hand to your face. He does not touch you. His fingers will slide through the air above your skin, sharper than eyes, and you do not need to hear your fortune from him now. It is enough to be here in this street of quiet secrets, to be read, to feel that you have a face which holds even a piece of the future.

Reannon Dykehouse is a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in China, in the municipality of Chongqing, where she teaches Spoken English to university students. Her work here has enormously impacted her outlook on our world, and she is striving to share those experiences with other citizens of the globe through her writings.