by Angela Slatter. First published in Shimmer #4, Summer 2006
Illustration by Nel Pace
Her breath smells like champagne, but not bitter as you might expect.
Something inside her turns it sweet, I’m not sure what. She’s a sugar-candy kind of girl, bright and crystalline as she reclines on the sofa – a chaise longue, more correctly. Her hair is spun like golden sugar, her eyebrows so light they may as well not be there, her lashes so contrastingly black that they must be dyed, her skin pale pink, and her mouth a rosebud pout, filled with small pearly teeth. Around her neck curls a long string of beads, wrapped twice and still long enough to hang to her waist. The dress is diaphanous, shimmering yellow, damp in places with traces of her last client. She is nothing if not lush. She catches me looking and smiles.
“How’s my girl doing?” Her voice is honey, smooth, practiced, as though I’m one of her ‘patrons’.
I sit primly on the edge of my seat, hands clasped in my lap, knees together, shiny black shoes snug against one another, my pink dress stretched as far over my knees as it will go.
“I’m fine, Mother.” I study the pile of books on the corner table. “Did Davide leave those for me?”
“Yes, Lily. More books for my little genius, my little pearl,” she says, still smiling but crookedly now; my mother doesn’t like my intellect.
One of her regulars, Davide, the banker, leaves us both gifts: for her it’s money, gems and a stickiness between her thighs; for me, it’s books. He thinks it funny that his whore’s child is smart, a grownup brain in a ten-year-old body. He is a large man, a nouvours, a teddy bear. Davide pays for my schooling, too, an expensive convent school where the nuns pretend they don’t know what my mother does.
Mother thinks it’s unnecessary: schooling, reading, thinking. She’s not dumb herself, but believes the only brains a girl needs are the soft, wet pink ones between her legs. Better pink matter than grey matter. And she’s done well for herself: she owns an apartment in Paris (such a long way from her early life in America’s South), and she’s got money in the bank, so we don’t live hand-to-mouth like so many whores and their children.
We did for a time. When we first came here, we lived in a brothel hung heavily with red velvet draperies, and run by a Madam whose over-abundant flesh struggled with the confines of her gown. At first, I made friends with the children of other whores, but they were ephemeral creatures and after the third one disappeared I stopped bothering. Soon enough, Mother prospered and we left.
She hasn’t tried to sell me to some man with a taste for young flesh. Some women sell their daughters’ virginity for a fortune; the worst of them have the girls sewn up and sold again and again until some man gets wise to the scar tissue. The very, very worst sell their children’s lives altogether, but few people speak of that. It only happens in dark places, places where the air is heavy and sounds are strangely muffled as though crossing a great space, places where what’s normal ceases to have any influence. Places we will not go.
Of course, Mother doesn’t refer to herself as a whore – it’s what I do in my thoughts. She calls herself a courtesan but it’s all the same, really. Money for cunt, whichever way you slice it.
My mother looks like a pearl in a baroque setting. I try to analyze her – have done so my whole short life – as if she’s some rock that I can break down to its elements. I try to write her history, too, in my mind, as if it will help me make sense of her, as if I can trace the patterns and paths of her life and she will suddenly become comprehensible to me. As if my clever little brain will finally crack the one puzzle I can’t seem to work out.
“Davide’s asked us to go away for the weekend,” she says casually.
I raise an eyebrow, an expression cynical in an adult, impertinent in a child; another parent would slap me for it. “You mean he’s invited you, Mother.”
“No, both of us. He’s got this big house just outside the Bois de Boulogne. It’s not so far, honey. His mama stays there most of the time but she’s away visiting her sister. Davide wants us to keep him company for the weekend. Maybe longer.”
“What about school?”
“Hell, Davide pays their ridiculous fees. Those old penguins will just have to shut up and bear it.” My mother has issues with nuns, not surprisingly. “The car will come for us on Friday afternoon.”
“What about his mother? What will she say if she finds out?” I ask, probing, knowing she’ll hate it.
“We don’t need to know that, do we? We don’t need to ask questions.” Her teeth are gritted, her smile tight. I’ll let her go now, release her from the hook of my curiosity.
So we’re off to the countryside.
I’m a child of cities, of cobbled streets, of tall houses that block out the sun. I’m a child who knows how to weave among the legs of a crowd like a nimble rat. How will I know what to do in treed spaces where no noise rushes by one’s ears in a hurry to go wherever noise goes?
It’s dark when we arrive.
The house is big and old. It sits in its park, dark and pock-marked, ivy growing across it like moss on the back of a toad that’s been sitting too long in one place. I can see, through one of the windows, a tiny light inside, coming closer as its bearer glides forward.
Davide opens the door for my mother, and the driver opens mine. I struggle out, pushing against the darkness that swarms outside the safety of the automobile. It’s like a dog, too big, too friendly and I run to press myself against my mother’s legs, briefly acting my age, thinking that all the protection I need is there. Her hands stroke my hair, curl around my earlobes and hold me briefly, then she takes the arm Davide offers, catches at my suddenly cold hand and we move toward the opening door of the house.
The man at the front door is old, straight in the manner of those who pride themselves on not succumbing to the rigours of age, handsome in a silvered way, snide in his look at my mother and I. There’s that quick flash of disapproval – his kind sometimes recognize my mother’s in a moment, servants and whores being close kin. Perhaps the servant recognizes this kinship and so despises anyone who reminds him of it.
Any road, it’s obvious. He will cover his disdain for my mother, at least while his master is around; he will not bother with me, for I am a child, and a whore’s child at that. Who will care if I complain?
We are led to a dining room and a sumptuous table set with more food than three people have any hope of getting through. Perhaps there are more servants in this house and they will benefit, or maybe it will go to the church and the priest will give it to his flock. Or the priest and his fat housekeeper will gorge themselves silly before they go off to bed and sin against their god, the priest burying his busy prick between her rosy thighs like a spade in damp soil.
I was born a cynic.
Above the fireplace hangs a portrait. The woman is large-boned, with a heavy jaw and thick lips. Her hair is pulled back severely, defying the frivolity of her silver-pink ball dress. She holds a Chinese fan in masculine hands, seemingly caught in the moment just before she breaks it in a cold rage. I don’t think I would like her.
“That’s my mother, little one.” Davide has caught the direction of my gaze. “It was painted during her season in Paris, before she married my father.”
I nod dutifully and turn my attention back to the plate in front of me.
My mother and Davide talk and I drowse over my meal. I slip sideways in the high, over-stuffed chair and press my head against my mother’s breasts. Her hand is tender if a little distracted, then Davide hoists me like a doll; he is a big man, a bear who’s been shaved and taught to walk upright. His smile is strange and his eyes are yellow. He smells like ambergris.
He tucks me into a large bed on the second floor. My mother has stripped away my navy school uniform but has neglected to slip the white nightgown over my head. She turns away and folds the uniform as her lover pulls the thick linen sheet up to cover me. His huge hands skim my flat chest; I cannot tell if it’s deliberate or not. He rubs a palm over my cheeks then dips his thick thumb in my mouth quickly, before my mother turns back.
I am a child. I am tired. I am afraid and removed from all the anchors of my normal life. My mother would not believe me. Something in his face tells me there’s no intent there, merely a kind of cruel curiosity to see if whore’s blood runs through my veins too. He has shown no interest in me before. Perhaps I passed his test; I did not react.
My mother’s lips are soft on my forehead as she whispers goodnight. Davide is at the door before she pulls back and stands to survey me a moment, smiling. My mother loves me, this I know, but I do not know if she loves me best.
Keys. So many keys.
I’m sitting at a battered table in the kitchen. An old woman, who could do with a wash, smiles as I eat the porridge she prepared for me.
I don’t like porridge but I’m a polite child when it comes to food. I spoon the gruel into my mouth and distract myself by counting the keys hanging on a myriad of hooks on the kitchen wall. If I’m good, I hope she’ll let me have some of the fresh bread she’s just pulled from the oven. I will have it smothered with the yellowest of butters and the reddest of the jams that sit on the far end of the table. I can almost convince myself that the porridge is worth it.
My mother and Davide have not yet risen. Or perhaps they have risen and gone out for the day. Perhaps there are stables and they have gone riding. Does my mother know how to ride something other than a man?
The keys catch my attention again. Some are very old, dark, others new, brassy and shiny. This is therefore a house of many doors – otherwise, why all these keys? Maybe there are rooms no one goes into anymore and the keys languish here, forgotten and unused. There is one empty hook and I wonder on it. Is the room locked, a sealed space, its key lost? Or is the key kept elsewhere, hidden, and the room a sacred space guarded from casual intrusion?
I finish my porridge and cook lets me have some bread and jam. I eat until I feel sick – bitter in the knowledge that if I hadn’t eaten the porridge I would have been able to eat more bread. Next time, I’ll refuse the gruel.
Cook shoos me out of the kitchen. As I pass the keys my eyes slip over the empty space, my fingers twitching as if curling around a key that is not there.
The library is huge.
I love the smell, the perfume of ink and paper. A book sits in my lap; it is small but so am I. I curl in the corner of an old armchair and carefully turn the pages. The lives of saints glow under my tiny fingers, their faces beatific despite the torments their bodies are suffering, caught eternally in pain on the paper. All the saints here are women.
I found the tome on the desk in front of the arched window. It looks well-thumbed, the pages falling open as willingly as a whore’s legs. It has an embroidered cover, fine white linen with religious icons running rampant across it, crucifixes, praying hands, angels’ wings. I wonder if it’s Davide’s mother who fondles this book, her hands touching the paper faces, envying them their beauty, their pain, their martyrdom. My mother would not understand. She is beautiful but she is no martyr. Nor a saint.
It is late and I wonder where she is. I have not seen her or Davide all day. The butler would not answer me when I asked him at lunch. The cook gave me pitying looks. I retreated to the library. My mother will know to find me here.
I must have fallen asleep.
I am still nestled in the armchair but the book has fallen from my lap. Its spine has split and the pages are askew. I want to hide it but I know its owner will come looking.
I bend and collect the pages. Under the leaves of parchment lies a key, quite small, heart-shaped at the end, black with age. I think perhaps it lived in the spine of the book but now I have destroyed its home. I slip it into the pocket of my pinafore and finish gathering the scattered folios.
It’s dark outside once again.
I make my way to the dining room, damaged book in hand. Davide sits alone at the laden table. I approach and settle the book next to him.
“I’m sorry, Davide. I dropped it and the spine – it broke,” I say in a small voice. His great head turns and yellow eyes look at me as if they have to try hard to focus. There’s a scratch on his neck, just above the collar of his shirt and a smear of blood on his ear as if he’s washed carelessly. I don’t step back.
“Things break, little one. It can be fixed. Books can be fixed.” He picks the thing up and turns it over; his hand moves across the cover the same way they have moved across my mother’s skin.
“Where’s my mother?”
His eyes focus on me at last, sharp. “Sleeping, Lily. She’s very tired.”
He reaches out and twines his fingers in my hair, like my mother does. “You’re not afraid, are you? What a strange child you are.”
I don’t answer him and he continues.
“Would you like to stay here? You and your mother?”
“I’m sure your mother would not be happy with us as houseguests, Davide.”
“Mother won’t know, little pearl.” He echoes my mother’s name for me. “But this could be the perfect place for you both. You would be lovely additions to my collection.”
I try to step back but he still holds my curls in his great paw. I cannot pull away without losing a hank of hair. His eyes darken and I think I see the bear inside, not so deep now, but near the surface – he is no longer nouvours but something dangerous, something that looks kind but will swat me aside without thinking, something that will shred me like a kitten between a dog’s teeth. He leans toward me, his breath rank as raw meat.
“How will you grow, little pearl? Will you be like her?” The fingers of his other hand catch at the hem of my skirt, flicking it up as scornfully as a breeze, but they go no further. “Will you be like her? A whore? Shall I wait for you to grow, little pearl? Will you replace your mother for me?”
I pull away, heedless of the pain, and he lets me go, laughing.
I do not know this man. This man who beds my mother. This man who pays for my schooling. This man who brings me books to read. This man who scares me half to death. This man who pushes back his chair and begins to rise.
The door is black. The bars of iron across it are rusted in places.
The pattern on its lock echoes the heart shape of the key sitting heavily in my pocket. I put my eye to the keyhole.
The light is dim inside and I cannot make out much. There is white, there is red, there is black. If I cannot find my mother, I will hide here until daylight.
To my surprise the key turns easily. The lock is well-oiled, often-used. Someone comes here a lot. Perhaps it is Davide’s mother. I push the door hard.
Things hang on the walls and lie on the floor at the edges of the room. Bones lie like pearls in the dim light of the brazier. At the end of the room is a bed, a four-poster draped with sheer curtains. Something lies white and glimmering there. I tiptoe through the bones as if they are daisies in the garden of my convent school. I must not disturb them or the nuns will be angry.
The drapes stick to my hand as if the fabric has sweated in the heat of the room. My mother lies on the soiled coverlet. She is white with red stripes across her skin. One side of her face is swollen and her lips are the purple-black of dried blood.
I think she is dead. I reach out and struggle with the cords that bind her wrists to the bed. Then those at her ankles. It’s not right that she be like this: splayed and displayed without her consent, without her will. She wouldn’t want to look like one of those saints; there is no beauty in her pain. Whoever imagined the saints took their pleasure thus surely had not seen them like this.
My hand hovers over her face. I want to touch her skin, to know if it’s warm or cold, to see if there is breath left in her, but strong hands pull me away.
“Little whore.” The voice is old, brittle as a cinder, and breathes the words as if they bring pleasure. I struggle, my hair blinding me. I am thrown across the room and land in a pile of bones. A rib pierces my side and I cry out.
“Whore’s daughter,” comes the voice again and I brush the hair out of my eyes.
A woman looks down at me, eager as a hunting dog.
Her dress was once fine, black silk crepe with severe pintucks stitched by slavish fingers, but now it’s dusty and dirty, encrusted with something that may once have been liquid but now makes the fabric as stiff as a corpse. At her breast hangs a heavy wooden penitent’s cross, plain, the figure of Christ rubbed featureless by devout caresses. She leers down at me.
“Too curious, little whore, just like that one.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “My son tries to keep them from me, but they always find their way here, they all come to be cleansed. Does your blood run as quickly as theirs, I wonder?”
Hers is the face from the dining room portrait, with its disapproving glare. Her hands are the ones that lovingly caressed the book of saints, longingly consuming their agony. She comes for me with surprising speed.
My hand closes on the broken rib that drips with my blood. As she leans down, hands reaching for me, I jam it into her eye.
She screams, jerks, then I hear a wet thud as a second blow falls and she slumps forward. I scramble out of the way of her falling bulk. Another bone protrudes from her back.
My mother stands behind her and she is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
A shadow falls across the doorway and Davide enters, his step hesitant. He seems unwilling to meet my mother’s eyes. When he does, he whimpers. I watch her face and she is terrible as an army with banners. She is naked and bloodied, yet there is something about her that will not be quenched. He did not save her from this danger and he will not be forgiven.
When Davide sees his mother, his cry is painfully loud. Mother and I limp from the room, leaving him to gather up her body, a reversed pieta.
The door closes slowly behind us and my mother, with only a moment’s hesitation, turns the heart-shaped key in the lock.
Angela Slatter writes dark fantasy and horror. She is the author of the Aurealis Award-winning The Girl with No Hands and Other Tales, the WFA-shortlisted Sourdough and Other Stories, and the new collection/mosaic novel (with Lisa L Hannett), Midnight and Moonshine. Her work has appeared in such writerly venues as the Mammoth Book of New Horror #22, Australian and US Best Of anthologies, Fantasy Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Dreaming Again, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, She has a British Fantasy Award for “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” (from A Book of Horrors, Stephen Jones, ed.), a PhD in Creative Writing and blogs at www.angelaslatter.com.
Nel Pace was born and raised in Malta (although most people still assume she is a tourist) and is a mostly self-taught illustrator, working freelance. Nel’s work started in 2010 and has since been busy with pre-production design, murals, artistic installations for events, and commissioned illustrations.