For about 20 years, after selling her first story to the Chicago Sun Times newspaper in 1924, Phyllis A. Whitney practiced her commercial writing skills by writing short stories and selling more than 100 of them to church papers and pulp magazines of the time. These short stories not only allowed her to explore a variety of subject matters; they also supplemented the income she received from working in libraries and book stores. However, with the publication and success of her first book, A Place For Ann in 1941, she mostly left behind the short stories and focused on writing full-length books.
In 1989, following the publication of her 71st book Rainbow in the Mist, (yes, 71 books, and more would follow!), Phyllis was interviewed for Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine, a popular new age periodical, and she felt compelled to share a short story she had written about an experience she had several years earlier. An enthusiast of the focused concentration tapes from The Monroe Institute, Phyllis used the tapes to help gain insight into her writing. Often, while listening to one of the tapes, she would drift into such a deep state of relaxation that she would fall asleep. In the interview, Phyllis said "One time, just before I fell asleep, a face appeared like the one in the story. I rejected it right away, but I never forgot it because it was quite an upsetting experience. After that I began to see faces very vividly before I fell asleep. They were going past me, but they were not anyone I knew and were not interested in me. One day — and this had been going on for years — I woke myself up and said, I've got to write about this, there's a story here." Later, Phyllis when on to say "I'm so happy to see it in print. I don't like to write short stories, but this one had to be written. Since then I haven't seen any more faces. It's so strange. They just vanished! Once in a while I'll see one, but not the way I used to."
Now, nearly 20 years later, I'm excited to bring you The Faces—the first of Phyllis A. Whitney's short stories to be printed online! I'm grateful to Paul Zuromski, the editor and publisher of Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine (which is sadly no longer in print today) for permitting me to reprint the story, and to Ann Nunley for allowing me to include her lovely illustration she calls "Moon Dream" — the same illustration that was used in The Faces when it was originally released in 1989. You can view more of Ann's work here.
-- Philip Tyo, Founder and Webmaster of The Official PHYLLIS A. WHITNEY Web site
I don't remember exactly when I began to notice the faces. Perhaps they'd always been there and I'd taken them for granted—paid little attention. I do know that I began to see them consciously two or three years ago, and I found them puzzling, but rather entertaining. In fact, I began to greet their appearance with a certain relaxed acceptance and interest.
There were never crowds of them—just one at a time, and always the faces of strangers. I saw each one in some detail. Never the bodies, but only upper torsos and those calm faces. They never looked anxious or distressed. Sometimes I saw them in profile, sometimes full face, and they were always reassuring to me because when they appeared before my closed eyes, it meant that I was about to fall asleep.
The ritual has taken on a certain pattern over the last months. At night I will be resting drowsily under a blanket, my alarm set for morning, and nothing to be seen through the oblong of window nearby except the November lace of a tree branch against moonlight. I will be almost asleep—and then the face will appear. Immediately I am awake and I'm able to examine the picture—whatever it is—on the screen of my mind. I even realize with pleasure that now I will go right to sleep. The face vanishes and I do fall quickly asleep, somehow comforted and unthreatened—no matter how upsetting my day may have been.
In the morning I can sometimes recall an exact appearance, yet I know these drifting visions are not part of my dreams. The lady in profile—she'd seemed quite close off to my left—had worn an old-fashioned shirtwaist with a high lace collar. I distinctly remember the concentric circles of lace and fabric covering her matronly breast. Her hair had been piled in a style fashionable early in the century, with a slight pompadour over her forehead. She appeared quietly intent on her own affairs. Certainly not in the least interested in me. I remembered the little girl with red hair cascading about her face, and the old man whose kind smile was not for me.
The mystery of who these strangers might be intrigued me. However, I didn't usually think about them during the day. Though if I took an afternoon nap on the weekend, the same thing would happen. Sometimes the faces seemed fairly close—or they could appear on my left or right, or in the middle distance. There were men as well as women, but only when I focused consciously could I recall details when I awoke from my sleep.
I wondered if everyone else saw faces before they fell asleep, but I always forgot to ask. Or perhaps I wanted this to be my own private entertainment, and unshared. Of course I couldn't make friends with any of these faces because the same ones never seemed to appear twice.
That is, until the advent of the Youth.
He showed himself after a busy day I'd spent at my real estate office. My ex-husband owned a share of the business, and he still came in every day. Bill represented uncertainty in my life. And failure. He was a question mark I'd never understood—perhaps because I was afraid to understand. I could do nothing about him except to be there so he couldn't take over entirely. I continued to direct operations as I always had. Today I'd shown houses to several young couples buying their first home. I wished them well and thought it fortunate that they couldn't see ahead into the future, as I had never seen ahead.
That night I felt unsettled and even more tired than usual. I wanted to go quickly to sleep and not bother about faces. A whispered thought seemed to run through my mind—a warning? Take care. You're tired. Don't leave yourself open and unprotected. I didn't understand and I said no words of grace that might have shielded me.
I'd hardly closed my eyes before he was there. I had never named any of the others, and I don't know why I called him the Youth—an archaic term that I'd never before used. Yet it seemed to suit him. His was different from the other faces—only a head, on which he wore a curious pointed hat—like a dunce's cap. His hair was hidden beneath it, and he had no body, so I received no indication of sex. I suppose the face could just as easily be called female, but I received some impression of a male quality. Not a boy, not a man—a youth.
The features were cartoonish in their simplicity—eyes very round and staring. Nose two dots, and a mouth that opened in an oval—a vertical oval—as though he were trying to tell me something. None of the others had ever addressed me, and the screen of my mind was silent, so I heard no words if he was really speaking.
What was different and rather alarming was that this face seemed interested in me. While the others drifted dreamily off on their own affairs, unaware of my watching, he came directly to me—nose almost pressed to nose—and stared into my face with an intensity that frightened me.
No—"frightened" is too strong a word. The frightening came later. Let's say I was startled that first time because the experience was new and arresting. Perhaps he stayed a fraction longer than the others before he faded and let me sleep. An aftermath of disturbed dreams followed—dreams that I couldn't put together in the morning, though they left me with an uneasy feeling. Nor could I forget that face as I had most of the others.
The next night I drank my usual hot milk and ate two honey graham crackers before I went to bed—perhaps a bit more apprehensively than usual. Instead of looking forward to a parade of interesting strangers, I found that I dreaded seeing that particular face of the Youth again. I wasn't sure what he intended, and I didn't understand his open mouth.
My day had been upsetting—not unusual lately. I'd found myself irritable and impatient, and I knew Bill was watching me—waiting for an excuse? to do what? He added to my uneasiness. But that was something I wasn't ready to figure out. I found it increasingly difficult to care whether my clients were pleased or not. Tonight I would need the oblivion of sleep more than ever.
When I was home and heating my pan of milk, I managed to scald it, and I had run out of my favorite grahams. I felt cross and restless, and I hoped that one or two of my more serene unknowns would appear to quiet me.
Instead, he was here, and very quickly. His eyes seemed rounder than ever, as if in something like terror, and his mouth had stretched out of its oval. Quite suddenly I understood. He was screaming. Without a sound, the face pressed almost against mine, was screaming in some torment I couldn't understand. Somehow it was horrible. Not that he threatened me, but that he wanted my help.
This time I didn't fall asleep at once, but sat up in bed in order to make him vanish. And that was the awful part. With my eyes wide open, my senses alert, the face still hung there before me in the room. Not as pressingly close, but it was there, tortured and silently screaming. I felt so completely unnerved that I spoke to the thing. "What do you want?"
Perhaps my voice startled him, for he faded out like the Cheshire Cat and I saw only a band of moonlight where his face had hung. It wasn't possible to sleep at all that night.
My dream faces were now a source of concern. Was I becoming unbalanced about them? Should I talk to someone?
I came as close—as close as the Youth's face had come—to talking to Bill. Not that he'd been especially sympathetic or understanding during our marriage. But we were partners, and supposedly he knew me rather well. It was his unexpected consideration that stopped me, because I didn't trust it. I looked tired and ill, he told me, and I really ought to go home and get some rest. I'd been much too nervous lately—so "run along”—he would take care of everything.
I was sure he would, but I stopped myself just in time from telling him so sarcastically. Instead, I took his advice and went home to my apartment. This matter had to be settled and settled now.
There was no need to wait till night. I pulled down the opaque shades in my bedroom, put on a warm robe and lay upon the bed. With no sleep last night, drowsiness possessed me easily. And with it came a whisper of warning: Step back while there's time. Call for protection. But now I knew I must face him and discover what he wanted. There was no other way. I knew he would come, and he did, almost as soon as I closed my eyes.
He seemed a little farther off than before—not pressed face to face—but I could feel his terror even more intensely. He mouthed the words, "Help me!" But how could I? His head moved as though he beckoned—yet how could I go to a creature that existed only inside my own mind? I might go crazy trying.
Except—perhaps there was a way. At least I could make the attempt. Certainly I lacked the will to resist the pull he put upon me.
First, I opened my eyes to see his face hanging there in my dark room. That was a mistake because now he glowed with a pale blue light that was almost like the phosphorescence of decay—and if I touched him perhaps I would decay myself.
My brain seemed filled with a miasma of confusion. How could I not touch him when he was a part of me? Yet his face with its dunce cap glowed out there in emptiness, pleading in some terrible torment for me to save him. Though I had no idea from what. Somehow I had to go to him, and now I knew the way.
With my eyes closed I could still see everything in my room. I could imagine, and this would be the means I might use to reach him. As soon as I built the picture in my mind, the thing began to happen. Slowly I rose out of my own body, floating up from where it lay on the bed in my old blue robe. For a few seconds it was wonderful to be free and floating. I could look down on my sleeping self and feel that if I wished I need never return.
But there was a presence in the room with me, and even though I was formed of smoke or mist—or whatever substance souls consist of—I could see him near me. He had changed. Now he was more than a face. He had grown a long, lean, man's body. His dunce's cap had changed too, growing taller and even more pointed. Cabalistic symbols covered it—not a dunce's cap, but a sorcerer's peaked hood.
No longer was he screaming in that dreadful, silent way that demanded that I come to him, help him. Instead, he was laughing, and that was more terrible than a scream. I floated, even more helpless than my helpless body, while he swooped down upon my bed. Now—too late—I knew what I had unleashed. There was a name for creatures like this—Incubus! The most evil spirit of our nightmares.
I tried to cry out for help, but no sound came. I was nothing—a gray, misty nothing, without substance or will. The woman on the bed stirred and smiled, with her eyes still closed. She couldn't see the thing that lay above her.
With one last wisp of my human power I called out—called out to be saved from all wickedness, from all evil.
Suddenly they were around me—the faces of my half-dreaming state. The calm lady of the pompadour and lace, the little girl with flowing red hair, the old man with the kind smile. And all the others I couldn't remember as well. Faces that had slipped into my consciousness and then drifted away, forgotten.
Now they seemed to congeal above where my body lay—as if some sort of windstorm filled the room and shook the air. The Youth was whirled up from where he lay prone—and before my eyes he seemed to be shredded into nothing—banished somehow into that limbo from which he'd come.
My eyes were closed. My real eyes. And now all those seemingly indifferent faces were around me, concerned for me. Calling to me with silent insistence. The lady of the pompadour smiled reassuringly, and the little girl seemed to drop the whisper of a kiss on my cheek. The old man was nodding to me in approval.
Then they too were gone and I lay quietly in my darkened room filled with wonder.
Who were they? It didn't really matter. All that mattered was that I had allowed myself to become too open, too vulnerable, without protection. But the protection was there when I'd called for it, and my room was no longer filled with fear.
Strangely, I no longer feared Bill either. Fear was something I could discard because I was no longer alone. Now I knew the words of blessing that would bring me help.
I raised myself on an elbow and looked at my clock. It was only two in the afternoon. I got up and dressed, feeling strong and sure—and supported. I would return to the office now to work contentedly.
Every day I thank my guardians, and I continue to wonder who they are.