Misa nudged her chin inwards and smoothed away the wrinkles that had sagged into her brow. Today she needed to be at her best. It was her fifth time going up for a Face Exam and she could almost feel the weight of the mask that was waiting for her when she passed.
“Do you need to use the water this morning?” her mother asked.
Water was a luxury that Misa rarely got to experience, but her family had pitched in over the last two weeks to see that she had a small pot of it to work with. It wasn’t enough to perfect her whole body but it had been enough for Misa to saturate the clay of her hands and head. She’d failed the last Face Exam because the putty of her outer layer had been too dry. This time she was concerned that she might have made it too fluid. Of all the Putty People who’d been selected for the test this season, she felt she had the best chance though.
“No Mom. I’m good,” Misa said. She was running late, as usual. Dithering over which of her few smocks she would wear.
It wasn’t an important choice. Putty bodies were so easy to mold that the Exam didn’t even look at them. Arms and legs, chests and backs. They all came out of the kiln looking the same and no one cared. It was the Face that held the all-important expression, that captured joy and wonder and held them in a perfect display for all to see for all of time.
Or at least until the centuries wore the Kiln folk away to nothingness and they were forgotten.
Misa continued to dither between her black smock that was edged with grey and and a deep blue smock that bore lighter corn flower blue highlights.
She didn’t want to be late. She couldn’t be late. She’d missed getting her mask five times already. She wasn’t sure she could bear failing the test a sixth time. And that was why she was dithering and wasting time.
Misa knew it wasn’t uncommon to fail the test more times than she had. Her mother and every older family member that she had were still working on getting their masks. It wasn’t a cause for shame to be told you weren’t ready for the Kiln.
Except that it was.
When Misa’s sister Ula had tested for her mask two seasons ago, it had only been the young girl’s second time before the Face Exam and yet she’d passed it. That had triggered more rejoicing in the family than Misa had seen in her whole life. There’d be an informal party that had lasted for over a week, from the time of the test to the day when Ula took her mask and stepped into the great Kiln.
The next day had been the cooling period and the day after that Misa had met the new face of her sister. Ula looked radiant, her eyes cast towards the stars above with an expression of blessed serenity etched in fine and lasting detail.
Misa had burned with jealousy but at the same time hadn’t been able to stay away from her sister when they placed her in the Eternal Garden. The Kiln folk never moved or spoke, they were frozen by the fire, cast into the one perfect moment captured by their mask.
Touching one wasn’t like touching another Putty Person either. There was a purity to the Kiln folk that a Putty Person could never capture. In place of the indecipherable storm of thoughts and emotions you picked up by touching another Putty Person, the Kiln folk radiated only the single moment of awareness that their masks depicted.
That her sister had earned such a fate while she’d been left to struggle with a blobby, uncertain life, had driven Misa into a dark and unforgiving mood. Only the news that she’d been selected as one of the examinees for the next test had lifted her spirits. She’d spent weeks preparing and refining the clay of her face, fearing the whole time that it was for nothing.
No one knew how or why the Examiners selected the Putty People that they did. Certain traits (like brittle skin) were obvious failures, but even among the rest of the candidates there were few qualities that guaranteed a selection.
And the color of her smock was definitely not one of them Misa decided. She picked the black and grey one. It felt somber and dark and, maybe because she wanted to hide away, darkness felt like it was her friend.
Hiding wasn’t an option though. By the time she arrived at the Examination Chamber, the crowds had already gathered. Moving through the throngs of Putty People was difficult. So many casual contacts, so many thoughts and feelings from the people around her flooding into her mind. Worse, Misa knew that her own fears and uncertainties were filtering out into the crowd through those she bumped into.
Somehow, through all the tumult, she wound up in the last of the preparation rooms, alone except for one other person, a young woman whom she’d never met before. Misa smiled when she noticed the other woman shared her taste in fashion at least. The black smock with dark purple highlights that the woman wore seemed to be of exceptionally fine make, but the style was common enough that Misa didn’t think they were too far apart in social standing.
“This is really fascinating.” the young woman said as she admired the back of her own hand.
Misa looked at the woman’s hand but it didn’t look particularly interesting to her. It was an unformed hand. They looked like whatever you wanted them to look like. There wasn’t any artistry to them until they were cast in the Kiln.
“Are you here for the Exam too?” Misa asked. She felt foolish when she said the words. Why else would someone be in one of the preparation rooms on the day of the Exam?
“Nope.” the young woman said.
“Why are you here then?” Misa asked.
“I’m here for you.” the young woman said.
“Why?” Misa asked, and then added the question that had been pounding in her mind for months. “Have I been selected?”
“No,” said the young woman. “Not ‘selected’ as you mean it. Not yet at least.”
“I don’t understand,” Misa said, confusing, fear and anger roiling around inside her and threatening to bubble up through the putty of her tirelessly worked face.
“I’m here to offer you a choice,” the young woman said. “If you wish to go out there, to your test, you may freely go. I can offer you no promises on what will happen. Or you can come with me.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Misa asked.
“Because your sister Ula wants to speak with you,” the young woman said.