Landolfi's Skin

Brian Kubarycz

Certainly, there is nothing funny about skin disease. Have we all not been witness to the gross misfortunes of some others, stumbling absently along until we suddenly met eyes with someone curiously disfigured, their head an egg speckled in cankers, rashes, carbuncles, nodules or moles? Have we not seen their pain, their fear? In a meeting such as this, can I feel anything but ashamed of my own face, its blank perfection?

The body, is it not a host for all disorders, the fertile soil a grim giardino di afflizioni? One might be born into the world with one limb piteously shorter than its match, short enough to keep one far from ballrooms, or from ever clapping audibly, or ever feeling joy enough to clap. One might be drug forth into this harsh world with marks from forceps bossed into one's front, legibly printed into the skin. One might be born with far too low a forehead, or with eyes which seem to be extruded. A boy could live to have a woman's breasts.

None of these things was the matter with me. I was a lucky one, born fully whole. I was a doctor, a professional, a friend to well-placed families. With rubber gloves I have lifted cystic masses from my patients’ shaven scalps. With steady hands I have scattered ashes over the same patients’ graves. My work has gained me permissions. I have gazed behind the mask of tragedy, learned to hide my pity, known the gift of fear. And so I was prepared, as much as could be possible, to meet Sr. Landolfi.

Landolfi came to me as so many patients had, with a latex mask over his face. That summer day, the scene of our first meeting, he came disguised as a great dictator. As we spoke and he began to bare his soul to me, he repeatedly arranged his rubber face, tightened the elastic straps with the right hand, held everything else steady with the left, lifted his mask so that air could breeze beneath. He passed a handkerchief, with the aid of a slender stick, no thicker than a twig, behind his sham dictator's face, swabbing the real Landolfi. After he finished, drops of sweat still trickled from behind the rubber. They slid like tears from a dictator’s face. This was the Landolfi I had seen in documentaries.

What we never saw in the movies was what we never guessed could be lying behind the legendary mask and under the cotton opera gloves: Landolfi's skin was clearer than a windscreen, transparent as wine glasses.

Once his clothes had been removed and he stepped wide of the partition, Landolfi was nothing short of a miracle, and yet a miracle completely known to me. He looked no different than a figure in a schoolbook, one of my print anatomies. The crimson stripes of his musculature, blue veins running needlework through its tissues; the wholesome layer of fat stretched over his broad belly, not obscuring my view of his gonadi, which dangled there and brought to mind Descartes and his Dioptrics; his thinnish suit of body hair, which hovered just above his dermis, horripilant, a meek aura.

Up to this point still masked, Landolfi now removed that final barrier, revealed to me the very fitting of his teeth, his jaw as square as any man's. Because, here, all was quite visible. Then Landolfi hid his face behind the shutters of his hands. He said, "Heal me, great physician."

My treatment of Landolfi was not meant to win me fame. Yet his case was unique, in all my readings, and, much more than merely effective, I expected the course treatment I proposed would be revolutionary.

My intention was to infuse pigment, or to be exact, an oil of cuttle ink, directly through dermis of the skin. These injections would require no drawn incisions but rather a Gethsemane of pricks. I told Landolfi his pain would be great, but I lied to him in my estimation of the number of punctures I would need to perform. In comparison, the surgery for urolith would seem a minor inconvenience. I suggested we begin with the backs of his hands, but Landolfi demanded we begin nowhere other than his face. He simply insisted.

Our sessions were projected to extend over a span of sixteen weeks. Landolfi agreed to eat only certain vegetables, drink milk with every meal, and compare his skin twice daily to a color chart designed for him. Thus we proceeded.

Since Landolfi's skin was clear, it was not easy to insert the needle without wounding him, though it was easy enough to miss his bigger veins. When a session had ended, Landolfi would return to his indumento, put on his mask and gloves again. I saw Landolfi naked twice a week. Gradually, Landolfi began to feel more at his ease around me. He removed his mask as soon as he stepped through my office door. He soon felt free to lie, spread-eagled, on the papered exhibition table.

Of course we will never understand what a sheer burden that mask had been for Landolfi, or the ecstasy he felt in forsaking it. How could we?

At home Landolfi's task was to massage his body in the mirror. The injections would leave livid patches on the surface of his skin. With the clear pads of his fingers, Landolfi worked the pigment in whorls, spiraling outward, self-examining, but always in reverse, the movements centrifugal. After a few days, the poolings would disperse and it would be time to continue with the next round of injections.

But something, as you can imagine, had gone wrong in my calculations. Perhaps I had mixed oversaturated ink. Or perhaps Landolfi was too eager as he worked the mixture through his tissues. Large bruises began to appear inside Landolfi’s skin, which, unacceptable as it may have been to him, was truly nothing short of ideal. Landolfi's skin was transparent, quite literally, but it was, further, intact as is any little girl’s. For weeks before the first injection, I studied his complexion (or rather its dazzling absence), and never could I find a single pit, no comedo or keratosis; never did I see a single lesion. Landolfi seemed never to have been a teenager. His skin seemed—I will say it—immaculately diseased.

In three weeks Landolfi's skin had turned a spinach green. No longer innocent, it now seemed sorely aggrieved. For though colorful, his skin had gained nothing in opaqueness. Only Landolfi's bruises had lost their transparence; they hung irregular and black, hard buboe stains inside a filmy matrix.

By this time Landolfi had returned to life behind the rubber mask. He removed it only long enough to take an altered batch of serum, one I was sure would work, and possibly undo the harm Landolfi had endured—if only he continued to trust me. But Landolfi forsook all treatment after the eleventh week. He took my hand and thanked me, and he put on the dictator’s face for the last time. As far as I can know, it has never left him since. The buboes in some regions of his body, I am told by his close family, are to a great extent now breaking, but the green, so far as I am told, shows no signs of retreat.

Landolfi came to me imploring a novel treatment. Certainly, no one had ever attempted such a cure before me. If my assay has been a failure I cannot be held to blame. Landolfi did not sue me. He never went to meet the press. He still appears in films, and for all the world is concerned, his face, which for the public was always latex anyway, has never changed, not by one vein. It has changed only for Landolfi, and for me.