4,700 Words

Trigger Warning: Implied Sexual Assault

“She doesn’t taste like anything,” the patron said, setting me down. “Not a damn thing—how remarkable.”

Bishop frowned and grabbed me around the waist, fingers tightening around my abdomen. He licked my cheek. I knew I should have felt the wetness, but there was only the pressure of his tongue against my skin, snaking over my ear and into my hair.

Bishop clucked his tongue and scratched his neck. He set me down gently, his and the patron’s figures towering above me, and I put my hands in my lap.

No sudden movements, I thought.

Bishop turned to the patron.

“Nothing,” he agreed, shrugging. “Maybe next time I could add a flavor for you, if you’re curious enough to stop by again.”

The patron, a rubbery man, licked me over again, this time with his eyes. He had thought the rumors were impossible to be true but took a chance and visited the apartment. When he first saw me, he had to sit down. Bishop had grabbed the bottle of whiskey he used for all his new visitors to pour him a glass.

“Hmmm yes,” he said, turning the now empty cup with his fingers. “I think that would raise the stakes nicely—add something more to her already unique performance.”

I shifted uncomfortably as he spoke. Bishop looked down at me, and I thought I saw something close to pride in his eyes. He was proud of me, my “performance,” the mixture of dances that he encouraged me to practice everyday.

Then the look in his eyes faded. The glow was gone. He turned back to the patron.

“Of course, it would cost extra,” Bishop added.

“What? Oh yes, of course.”

“Would you mind passing the word along?” Bishop asked. “Feel free to describe her improvements. I will begin working on her as soon as you leave.”

“Of course, of course, sculpt away.” The patron rubbed his hands over his face, ”And I’ll be back soon enough. She’s too … too singular … to forget.”

Bishop grinned, flicking my chin, and I had to try to not flinch away from his fingers, the gnarled fingers of a woodcrafter. His index finger was still swollen from jamming it the day before.

After a few more drinks, the patron got up to leave. Bishop led him with his hand under his elbow, whispering in his ear, and they would both giggle, nodding their heads vigorously.

“You have my card,” Bishop said opening the door, his arm sweeping into the hallway.

“It will remain in my pocket,” the patron said, wiping the corners of his mouth. “And you,” he turned back to me as I sat on the couch. “You stay just as you are, little one. A perfect piece of craftsmanship, Mr. Bishop, I am impressed, speechless really, truly.”

“And drunk?”

The patron laughed, slapping Bishop on the shoulder and walked out the door. After two steps, he stopped and swung on his heels.

“A final question.”

“Of course.”

The patron brought his hands together and twiddled his thumbs. He seemed embarrassed.

“Does she speak at all?”

Bishop motioned to me with his hand. I hopped off the couch and walked to the door with stiff legs and heavy arms.

Chin up. Walk nimbly. Flowing movements.

I gazed up at the patron and smiled. His skin sculpted around his jaw and mouth in a perfect “O.”

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

“Marvelous,” he breathed.

“Good evening,” Bishop nodded and motioned me to stand clear so he could shut the door.

§

“Well done, my pet,” Bishop said, putting his hand around me and sweeping me up into the air level with his chest. With the patron gone and the apartment empty, I was finally able to look at him with disgust.  He met it with a wink and clutched me tighter.

“Now we can start making those improvements,” he said, starting to unbutton the back of my dress. His fingers touched me again, pushing against the hard surface of my back. It was a smooth surface, sanded to perfection.

“You’re a monster,” I whispered.

“That’s what a lot of people say about their creator.”

§

There was always bells in my ears. Every night he worked on me, and the morning after was sluggish and full of fog. My head seemed heavier, and I felt like an old phone was ringing behind my eyes. I was on the couch again, and I was wearing a new dress. Bishop sewed almost as well as he carved. This dress was the color of red wine, and it didn’t feel as heavy as the white one I had worn the day before. I felt nothing of its texture. It wasn’t smooth or rough, thick or thin. I never thought I would miss sweating, or the feeling of being so cold I might shake to pieces. Now, I was just pieces.

Bishop must have been drinking as he worked on me; I heard his snores from his studio. He had fallen asleep at his workbench again, doing God knows what. The bells still rang in my head, and the sound had grown to a train whistle. I climbed up on the arm of the couch and jumped to sit on the back of it. The shades were up, letting in more light than usual. It was early enough that I could sneak a few moments looking out onto the street, to the world that had become hopelessly large around me.

The apartment had belonged to Bishop’s father: an apartment above a woodshop a little outside the city. His father made most of the items downstairs, and Bishop refused to work on such “boring toys” to restock the shelves. He ignored the wooden boats collecting dust downstairs, and the aging dollhouses. Then there were the shelves of marionettes. There were dozens of them, all sitting lifeless together, heads leaning on each other’s shoulders. They were painted so ornately that you might think they’d sit up and look at you, but they couldn’t.

They shouldn’t.

Bishop said he made enough money from my showings that he wouldn’t need to restock. He rarely opened the shop anymore. It was a pity really, because I used to like it down there. There was a cash register I was so fond of. It took so much weight from my fingers to push on the keys, back when I could reach them.

“You have such delicate hands,” Bishop once said, taking them in his own and bringing them to his face. He used to enjoy the softness of them, the way the blood pumping through them made the skin warm. I had pulled away from him then as I pulled away from him now, only my hands were no longer soft or warm. I loved his father as my own. I had even loved Bishop for a time, and he had loved me. That was a long time ago.

I looked out onto the streets below, quiet and empty in the morning. Windows are breathtaking inventions. It was like looking out from the inside of a fishbowl, and how was my predicament any different? Bishop considered putting me on the storefront windows to watch fingers touch the glass, but realized it would cause too much of a stir. He saved me for the high bidders, shaped me for the richest and loneliest of patrons. He said I was worth a fortune. There was nothing else like me. I could be restrained and confined, played with as anyone pleased. Bishop painted my lips to plumpness, and stained my cheeks so they looked flushed. My eyes stayed the same. He liked that best about me. I brought in his milk and bread, the tools on his bench and the sheets under his body. I tried to remember what money would feel like in my hands again, and all I could think of was the word “rough.”

I leaned forward and watched children play along the street. They were throwing around a ball, dressed in puffy coats. They were beautiful boys, with faces shiny like mine, but their cheeks changed color constantly from red to pale. Sweat glistened on their faces, and to me, their movements, however awkward they ran, was the epitome of dance. Their skips and hops mixed with laughter, and a ball lobbed up and over their heads with such grace. Bishop had modeled me on the loveliest ballet dancers of Paris, but to me, these boys were perfect. Their performance: flawless.

My hands clasped my chest, clutching through the fabric of my dress. I remembered something I once knew, something a man told me, once. My hands slowly moved down over my breasts to my abdomen, to the ribs and belly that never contracted. Something used to be there, within there. Something that was the perfection of the boys on the street. I remembered crying. I used to know such pain, physical pain, nerves exploding, as if each pore of skin were a meteor plummeting to earth.

Oh my God, I couldn’t. The word was gone. I could not remember the word.

It took a moment to comprehend the snores had stopped. The apartment was quiet, and although I could feel nothing tangibly, I knew Bishop’s presence. He was like a plastic bag over my head. He knew every thought and everything I could, or couldn’t, feel.

He stood behind me, waiting for me to notice. The back of his hand hit my back with a force that threw me off the couch and across the living room. My body crashed onto the floor, sounding like a handful of dominoes.

The bells sang. Deep church bells ringing in the distance. Bishop lumbered over to me, hung over. He picked me up, smelled me and licked my neck up to my hair. His tongue engulfed me.

“I added vanilla,” he said, exhaling. “The wood acted as a sponge, soaking it all up. But it will fade eventually.” Then he shook me so that I thrashed back and forth, my face hitting his chin.

“I was just watching them,” I said raggedly.

The bells swung against the inside of my head, and I covered my face with my hands.

“It’s too dangerous for you, my dear” he said, encircling my neck with two of his fingers so he could let go of my waist. His fingers clasped my neck as if I were in a noose, and with his other hand lifted my skirt to inspect me. My legs dangled in the air.

“If I chipped anything, I’ll have to sand it over before Abraham comes.”

“Nothing chipped,” I said trying to pry off his fingers. “I’m fine.”

“If you had just stayed where I left you …”

“They didn’t see me,” I said. “Nobody saw me.”

He unleashed his fingers, and I fell to the floor again. Every time my head hit the wooden boards, there were fireworks of light. Flashes. Sometimes when he threw me down hard enough, I’d see faces; people I no longer knew.

Bishop sighed, staring at me.

§

“It’s December,” he said. “Remember how much you loved December?”

     December?

I thought I saw his hand twitch, and for a moment his eyes were watery and sad. He blinked and walked into the kitchen. I rolled to my side, away from him, holding my knees to my chest. It was bubbling up again inside me, desperation I couldn’t shake.

     Go. Flee. Anywhere.

There was nowhere to go. Nowhere I could find refuge, unless someone mistook me for something I wasn’t. I could be cast into darkness, the river, or a fire.

“Abraham is coming,” I said, not sure if it was a question or confirmation.

“Mhmmm,” He said, and there was a sound of a cabinet opening and shutting. “I called him last night after I added the vanilla.”

“Don’t leave me alone with him again,” I said. “Please.”

I turned over to face him. I saw him opening a can of corn and pouring it into a metal pot. It splattered around the edges, and he set it over the stove.

“If he pays me twice what he did last time,” he pointed his spoon at me, “We’ll have to grin and bear it, won’t we?”

“We?” I asked.

“You think this isn’t hard for me, too?” he said, staring into the pot.

“You are worse,” I said.

“It’s not my fault,” he snapped.

“What did you do?” I said. “Why do you hate me?”

Bishop’s shoulders rose and fell in a rolling motion. I couldn’t tell if he was crying.

“It doesn’t matter what you were,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who I was either.”

He turned around.

“This is history, Mary,” he said, reaching out to me. “You are a miracle. Can’t you see what I’m trying to do?”

“If I’m so special, why am I being given to these men?”

I scoffed and pulled myself off the ground, swaying a little as the bells jangled. After the corn had cooked, I heard metal clink against a bowl while he ate, and it only made the sounds in my head worse.

§

“If you want me to be perfect, you better fix these bells,” I said. Brushing dust from my dress, I walked over to the couch and jumped up and on to it. Bishop scraped the spoon along the bottom of the bowl, making me twitch, and then he set the spoon in the sink. He wiped his hands on his shirt.

“You want me to go digging in your head?” he asked, coming back near the couch. I sat at the corner and hugged my knees to my chest to rest my chin.

“I wouldn’t stumble nearly as much if the bells went away.”

He knelt on the floor so he was at eye level with me. He smiled, and the butter settled over his teeth like gel.

“Maybe after Abraham leaves then,” he said. “You’ll be tired after.”

“If he touches me—”

“He will!” Bishop pointed at me, his hand trembling, “And you’ll let him. Otherwise I’ll dig into your head with a spoon, and you won’t even be able to speak anymore. I–I would prefer not to do that.” I looked away from him, but his index finger and thumb grabbed my chin and turned my eyes back to his.

“Trust me.”

“Trust,” I said. “I can’t feel anything.”

Bishop flinched, and I saw the muscles in his jaw clench.

“But you feel fear,” he said. “That’s an emotion that connects every living thing.”

“Enough to connect us? You and me?” I asked.

He smiled.

“That’s the Mary I knew,” he said, breathless. “Abraham will be here in a couple of hours.” He gestured to the small mirror leaning against the wall on the floor. “I suggest you start practicing your dance.”

§

Abraham was expected within the hour when there was a knock on the door. Bishop had cream on his face from shaving, and he swore under his breath.

I was lying on the couch. Bishop had told me to practice, and when he watched, I managed a few twirls and dips. When he left, I collapsed on the couch, sick and anxious.

The days pass too quickly. The bad moments stand still.

There was never enough time to gather myself, to consider.

Bishop wiped his face with a towel as he opened the door.

“Bishop,” the voice said. Bishop immediately tried to shut the door but a boot caught it.

“Please,” the voice said.

“Bad timing, friend,” Bishop said. “We have company coming any moment.”

“Five minutes. That’s all I ask. That’s all I ever ask, isn’t it?”

I knew that voice. How could I not recognize the soft scratchiness, the voice that was felt from the back of the throat, husky and warm. I’d imagined how sand sounded grazing a smooth stone, but I couldn’t recall how I learned the comparison.

“Henry, bud, you really ought to find something else to do,” Bishop said, but stepped aside. I gazed excitedly over the arm of the couch as he walked in. It was the same coat, same shoes, same shadow of facial hair as before. The shoes were wearing at the heels, and the coat had more patches stitched to it than before. Henry had come back again. But after how long?

“Do you even have enough for five minutes?” Bishop asked quietly. It was hard for anyone not to pity Henry. Even I did, and Henry had abandoned me so many times. He was still abandoning me. He would continue to abandon me.

Henry took out a small leather bag and emptied the contents into Bishop’s outstretched palm. Bishop fingered through the coins and paper bills and clutched it to his chest.

“Worth about six minutes, actually,” Bishop said, but he held up his finger and shook it in front of Henry’s face. “This is also worth a small dinner, bud. Sure she’s worth it?”

Henry pushed Bishop’s hand back to his chest, and turned to face me. He flinched, as he always did at the first sight of me, then he waved. I held my hand over the couch arm and waved back.

“Time starts now,” Bishop said, making a motion to pat Henry on the shoulder, but then he balled up his hand into a fist and backed away. Bishop walked briskly to his bedroom and shut the door.

“How are you?” Henry asked.

“The same.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For not doing better.”

I wondered what it would be like to feel his coat and the stubble on his cheeks.

“How are you?” I asked him.

“About the same as well.” He looked up and around me. “Still thinking this could be a dream.”

“You should stop thinking that.”

“Does he hurt you?”  Henry looked on the verge of tears, knowing he had to ask. He always asked. Maybe he hoped someday I would say something different.

“Every day,” I said.

His shoulders trembled and his head slumped forward.

“But you don’t feel pain, or touching.” He sucked in air and whimpered.

“It’s not that kind of pain,” I said, looking away. “It’s different. Something I can barely grasp.”

Henry’s face looked mangled with pain, blinking away tears. What had happened to him? What happened to those strong hands, hands that used to do nothing but protect? There was silence for a few minutes. Henry stared at me, eyes pleading. Time travels too fast, I thought. I don’t even have enough time to process him, to understand why he comes anymore.

“One minute,” Bishop yelled through the bedroom door. Henry jerked at the announcement, rubbing his hands over his face.

“I should take you with me,” he said through his fingers.

“But you can’t,” I said.

“I can’t.”

“You never can.”

“I am so sorry, Mary.”

“I know you’re sorry,” I whispered. “If I know anything, it’s that you’re sorry.”

Henry clutched his chest with his hands and backed toward the door.

“One day, I’ll kill him,” he whispered. “Then I’ll take you away, Mary. He can’t hurt your forever.” This oath seemed to revive him, and he tried to smile. I wanted to cry in disgust, torn apart from the inside out again. I waved him to the door.

“It will happen,” he promised.  He opened the door to leave but waited for my response.

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

He stared, tears streaming down his face. Then he nodded and closed the door. I heard the sound of shuffling feet down the long hallway outside the apartment to the staircase. His feet dragged all the way down the steps until I couldn’t hear them anymore.

Bishop swung open the bedroom door and walked out, rubbing his palms together.

“It’s sad,” he said. “That man needs to move on.”

“Yes, he does.”

“You think he’ll be all right out in that big, bad world, Mary?”

“You should know,” I said, collapsing with a sigh on the couch. “He’s your brother.”

“He made his choice,” Bishop said, lips twisted. There were a few seconds of silence while he stared at the closed door. Then he scowled and went to the kitchen to warm up more corn. He slammed the cabinet doors and turned the stove on so violently, he nearly tore off the knob.

“Damn him,” I heard him whisper. “God damn him.”

I practiced dancing continuously until Abraham arrived. It was better than staring at the door, recalling the trudging footsteps down the stairs, wondering where Henry slept at night. Wherever he laid his head, I knew it must be a very cold place. Very cold, indeed.

§

I didn’t mean to do it, not consciously. It happened just the same. Abraham was on the floor writhing in pain. His pale, skinny body was flopping like a dying fish, hands over his face, blood spewing between his fingers. I dodged the thumps of his feet, backing under the bed and into the shadows. After the first few shrieks, Bishop tried to open the bedroom door, but Abraham’s body leaned against it.  Bishop yelled for him to move but the screams overwhelmed him. He couldn’t enter the room until Abraham stopped moving.

I shouldn’t have done it, because I knew Bishop wouldn’t hold back anymore. He would make me pay, dearly, for this mistake. And imagining what he would do to me made me drop to my knees in tearless sobs.

“Please,” I said in a small voice, “Please don’t touch me.”

§

Abraham always kept a pocketknife in his jacket.

He was lying on the bed, shirt unbuttoned, and he had asked me to dance on his chest.

“I want to feel your little feet all over me.” He giggled.

He liked it. He liked it so much he closed his eyes. I was not the perfect dancer, but I was graceful enough. Bishop said I attended ballets a long time ago, and he made me very light on my feet. I felt like one of those twirling figures in a music box, spinning in circles.

“You know, the others talk so much about you,” Abraham said. His eyelashes twitched. “How wonderful you are, how absolutely surreal your abilities have become.”  I did an arabesque, one foot pointed into his sternum and stretched my hands toward the walls. He exhaled deeply, and I continued to dance.

“We even,” he laughed and cleared his throat, “we even made a little song for you. We sing it at the bar all the time. Don’t worry, nobody knows what we’re talking about, really.” He scrunched his eyes and started singing. His head and fingers wagged back and forth to the tune.

 

Miss Miss Marionette

sold her soul and lost a bet

Once she saw what she had done

made a plea and tried to run

All that’s left is wood and bone

the way she moves will make you groan

 

Abraham’s cackle was deafening. I stumbled while his chest and belly rumbled and rolled. By the time he had calmed down, the bells had come back. The pain of it hit with such force that I fell onto him, my cheek hitting close to his nipple. Abraham decided to sing the verse again, bouncing his bottom up and down on the bed. All I heard were muffled notes and laughter in between each line. The bells sounded less like bells and more like a siren, circling the insides of my head. My mouth hung open in shock, and I felt the siren would shred me, make me implode into a little ball. I couldn’t feel his skin, but I saw the oil on it, the scabs and moles that covered him everywhere. He had done worse to me. Undressed me, played with me, had me dance until I didn’t know how to stop. He liked when he made me cry. He thought it made me more human, more wholesome.

Over the bumps and curves of his skin, I saw the sides of his shirt and jacket. He never took them off, just unbuttoned them, and if I rolled over a couple times, I knew I could reach the knife that was hidden there, tucked comfortably in the fabric.

He picked me up and placed me on my feet. His eyes cracked open to check on me.

“Did you fall, little one?”

I nodded and forced a smile. With a pirouette and a bow, I leaned forward and touched the tip of his nose with my finger.

“Close your eyes, Abraham,” I whispered.

His cheeks widened into a grin and he shut them willingly. Abraham placed his hands behind his head and leaned back. He started to hum the tune again, but his mouth remained shut.

I lifted my hands up and skipped backward toward his belly. I tried the daintiest footwork, and did a back bend over his chest.  Abraham’s eyes had relaxed, and he licked his lips while he hummed. I slid my hand under his shirt to tickle the side of his ribs, and he giggled again through his lips, making bubbles with saliva. And while he giggled, my arm had cradled the knife.

I was up and twirling again, using both hands to open it, trying not to waver as the bells in my head screamed at a fever pitch. Finally, as the blade flicked out, it happened. The bells unleashed, the sound of the siren in my skull shrieked. I cried out from it, which only aroused Abraham.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Keep going.”

Through the haze, I leapt forward and landed under his collarbone, clutching the handle with both hands. I thrust upward, into the hole of his nostril. There was a crunch, and I leaned against the handle to force it farther. Now it was done. There was nothing left to do but let the blood spray over me as Abraham flung me to the floor.

§

Bishop reached his arm underneath the bed, clawing for me. Balled up in the corner, I kept saying things I can’t remember, shaking my head violently.

“We could both be killed for this,” he said. “Destroyed. Do you understand? Do you want to be burned? Christ, Mary!”

He was visibly shaking; blood was spattered all over his shirt. He let me cower under the bed as he dragged Abraham’s body out of the room. I heard doors opening and shutting. I thought I heard a hacking of his hammer, but I wasn’t sure. He came back even bloodier than he had been earlier.

He snatched my foot, and I screamed as he dragged me out from under the bed. The red wine dress was stained with blood. He held me upside down, holding onto my ankle.  I screamed, pleading for him to let me go.

I won’t do it again. I will dance until I die.

“Shut up,” he said. Bishop ripped my dress from me, revealing the pulleys in my joints and the carefully sanded curves of my body: the smooth pelvis and the hourglass waist, the crafted breasts that would never give milk. He walked into his studio and slammed the door.

“You want to feel?” he asked, strapping me to the table. “I will give you back the only thing you’ve ever missed.”

He reached over me to grab a drill off the shelf, his breath ragged and quick. He was sobbing.

“Oh God, Mary,” he said. “What have you done? What have you done?”

His hands trembled as he opened his father’s book, rummaged to the last remaining section. When he found the page, he paused, sucking in air through his teeth. He dropped his forehead to rest on the page.

“You give me no choice.” The drill roared to life, and he turned the lamp on his desk over my head. I was reduced to mumbling, my lips opening and closing while barely making a sound.

Wedding bells. Church bells. Jingle bells. Bike bells. Death bells. Life bells.

My head cracked open like a walnut. I heard nothing but Abraham’s song and saw only ribbons of light.

Lyndsie Manusos’s fiction and poetry have appeared in PANK, Midwestern Gothic, Luna Station Quarterly, and other publications. Her flash fiction story “Clean Team” won Ooligan Press’s Write to Publish Contest and was published in The Masters Review. She’s a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program. You can follow her on Twitter @lmanusos or visit her website. She lives in Chicago.

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