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The Bearded Girl and the Silksmith

written and illustrated by Mar Gyorin (魚鱗丸)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/313485.html)

1

I’m turning his music boxes one after the other to punctuate the sound of scratching, me at my beard, him on blank paper torn from the back of my books. Six months he’s been penning my dear suitor letters to the next town in line, since I confessed to wanting to settle down with more furniture than a double chest full of books, and attached myself as a straggler to this hodgepodge backroad centipede of caravans digging in dirt that changes weekly, like a cage.

Since he took hold, there’s always a decent date waiting for me as soon as I knock off for the evening. Sometimes there’s more than one a night, sometimes more than I remember inviting, but clean coins always jangle in their pressed pants. None of them have seen fit to place a ring as well as their hanging parts in the hand I outstretch for an introductory kiss. So far rendezvous have been strictly confined to dim alleys branching off the sideshow drag, and his dimmer caravan while he’s out performing a hundred feet away and a further hundred up in the air. I’ve never spent a full night outside his van.

“How’s that?” He passes one of a fair haul.

“It’ll do.” He’s poured on the usual meeting instructions in soupy cursive and pouts a smile of satisfaction over his crooked shark teeth at my permission to proceed. If I could write as well as him, I wouldn’t have to suffer the ambivalent envy and gratitude he irritatingly welcomes as a compliment while I impatiently turn his cranks one by one, over and over, until he finishes the fourth and last one with a flourish and hands it to me for my chicken-pecked signature. The messier the scrawl, the less plain it is my hands were shaking when I wrote it.

I kiss the wet ink for luck, but the smudge I leave can’t mask the blot I spilt. I wonder if it’s poison enough to slow my racing heart as I suck it off my lips. He reclines on his bed of cushions, no mattress beneath them, just the wood floor which swells enough in cold weather to deny the draughts’ knocks to be let in while they crawl and whinge beneath the van’s fat wheels. He nestles amongst mounds of velvet, peering past their craggy promontories with half an eye, like an alligator lounging underwater pretending not to be hunting for wandering prey. As if I weren’t going nowhere. “They’re just men like any other, poppet.”

“They have room to move.” Ten-dollar words in nickel books long since inoculated me against the complacency of my class. He winds himself up with dangling silks to see over people’s heads to somewhere beyond our lot, but sturdy book stacks are my ladders, and I need a house large enough for a library, not a tent full of empty space to swing through as though on a vine, nor a dim caravan.

Wemove.”

“You ain’t been importing that reticence into my letters, have you? Is it your fault my dates are dwindling?” I know his flowery language is as pleasant a bouquet as ever, but there’s no denying my replies have been decreasing. I don’t know if it’s because we miss the mail more often the sparser the towns get as we head further west or if it’s something more sinister. People out here might know each other more intimately than those who live in closer proximity to one another and meet more often. A vital network comprising few letters that cut right to the chase might do the work of a dozen shared shallow nights in bars and barns, and talk me down before I arrive.

Truth is, I kind of hope so. Eventually those unkind untruths will reach a rich black widow or widower who won’t baulk at what they down nasally twanging lines netting gossip, and who’ll gladly gobble me up by night and leave me to their books – my books by day. Let a web of lies do the devil’s work and trap me with a fell swoop.

“Quality over quantity,” he says smoothly. “That’s why I said to only answer the ones who send photos.” Not for their looks, mind. For the fact they can afford to have a picture taken and then sent away on a whim and a prayer.

“I ain’t fussed how pretty their purses are, long as they’re deep,” I murmur. It isn’t fair. There’s no photo of me in all my ads, just a small-printed warning to beware of the dog. The hair of it.

He hums without agreeing. I stare too long at his tapestry of cushions, sparkling with flecks of gold thread, until stars are all I see. Maybe it’s my futile reticence that’s been my failing. His unsaid promises are a lie, I know that. He’s as slick as his silks, and obscuring as cool night air. The fool’s gold threaded throughout this caravan has me cursing in solitude all hours of the long days except those I get to swallow the breaths he feeds me, like medicine I have to take daily, speaking of hair of the dog.

The longer he dallies, the more my rosacea takes me. Dipped in steaming blood, I am, it seeping down my stalks of limbs, painting veins in sketchy pen strokes to the very tips of my ears and toes. He rustles himself free and pinches my glowing embers of cheeks, pulling them every which way, caressing away their sting, stoking it into an even burn. As far as he can tell, only my skin reacts him moving at last. I trained my pupils to be as still as my ramrod back despite my trilling nerves. They only engorge nice and steadily upon his leaning close enough to shield the light.

“Until you’re wheezing, that red’s the only sign you’re alive, pikelet.”

“For now.” I’m not glad at being able to deceive him.

“Ghosts are supposed to be transparent.”

“I ain’t a ghost.”

“Not yet.”

Despite the undertow of his spoken words swearing blue they want to drag me under, drown me here, and extinguish me on the deep sea floor of his evenings where no one else can stake a claim through what he calls my callow heart, his letters more than sufficiently solicit on my behalf. It’s not kind, the way he releases me anew every night and sees me off on my dates with smiles, but it is sensible. What’s done in the dark stays buried in it, festering like a splinter wound we can’t help but keep licking to clean, preventing it healing shut.

“What do you say?”

“Thank you.” He’s bobbing for more gratitude than he’s due, considering he originally volunteered, practically elbowed me aside to write my letters. I slip a hand to the nape of his neck to tilt his head back, wrenching him up slightly in his crouch. He also made me wait, so I shan’t capitulate so quickly. “Could be neater.”

He flexes all ten of his fingers in the air, curled and mangled as licks of frozen smoke, then he lowers them high upon my thighs and lets them sink and settle in the softness so different from his chiselled planes. “No, plum. What do you say?”

“Now?” I take pains to sound bored, like heat isn’t honeycombing my chest like a string of beads, like every turn of his tiny metal music machines didn’t churn me up like I was butter spun from snake milk. Like I haven’t been nude for the past hour, parading myself before him like a cheap postcard, playing with his yards and yards of silks like I was a cat throwing feathers up in the air to bat at, draping myself in them to create togas and boas.

It’s the man’s job to charge like a bull, not yours. He often indulges himself with digs at my skin under the guise of counselling about how to entertain his kind. Like I don’t already know.

“A kiss for luck,” he tries to convince me. “I have a feeling about this place. Reckon it could be the one you stay at.”

“No point wasting that talent. You’ll want to hang a new sign on your door.” I flop back on his makeshift bed with a sigh of resignation.

“Paint it black,” he replies, immediately stroking my hair behind my ears and fondling my chin like I was his pet.

“I’ll clean it tomorrow, at least. All are bitching about rust already.” The salty air is especially tangy where we pointedly parked to catch the brunt of the abrasive sea breeze. I like places like this hill. You can see the ocean, and it isn’t idle or drunken meandering that compels townsfolk to make the effort to stagger up the steep slope. They stumble only on roots and ruts and respect their own journey too much to treat me poorly or tug on my beard too hard.

Coiling his legs around my waist, he takes up his usual arms, one silk strap for now, with his toes as dextrously as if he’d grabbed them with his hands. He snaps it taut, loud enough I jump. High, too, since he relieves me of his weight on my lap in order to slink down and bind my ankles to one another.

“You know silk can stop bullets?” I say. “Outlaw in Arizona once got shot in the neck wearing a cravat, I heard, and they tugged on the kerchief and it all slid out with the bullet mostly intact.”

“Not the man’s throat,” he says, amused.

“Popped out like a coin tied up in a hanky your mother gives you for church collection.”

“No mothers, no churches.” He appeals for silence now, tying my wrists to a long line that stretches to my thighs. Though the connection’s slack, the knot’s fixed one end of me to the other like an axle. He drapes part of the excess ream around my flaccid cock’s head and rubs the material gently over it. I start at how the silk feels like coarse cotton.

“Could it stop your bullets?” he muses. “Or your arrows?” He takes what fits of my right breast in his palm and presses it up until it echoes with the booming of the muscle beneath, clanging autonomous electric shocks, squeezing and wringing me out. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, like an unlatched door heralding an approaching storm. He wants me too wound up to worry about how I can’t flee.

I have faith in that gentle grin to spare, but my nerves don’t disappoint him, tinging me nice and pink from head to bound ankles. He straddles my lap again, still soft in contrast to his. My thighs aren’t as densely packed with muscle as his but are the same breadth nonetheless, thanks to the difference in weight of bone which lets me tip him forward against my stomach by raising my knees as far as the knot’s give will let me.

He descends upon my lips and brushes a succession of quick slashes against them, dry enough to start a fire. We’re two matchsticks rubbing heads together, mine crimson, his fiery white but no less fevered. He pulls my beard like he wants to unmask me, harder even than the time he were appraising me in front of the owner, and pain tattoos my tits like a true carnie, upending splashes of red wine in a vitiligo patchwork all over my torso. The heat washes me down like a scalding shower leaving me icily pricked with goose bumps, rinsed by the draughts of his hot breaths.

“Poinsettia,” he whispers into my mouth at my colour of in the flickering candlelight.

His lips are obscene, quivering, wet and plump and darker and mine. They’re the only part of him that’s flushed, for now, but they give me an opening. “Hypocrite.”

2

I’d been accepted into the fracas’ fray already when he strode inside the yurt like he owned it, warming his back at its stovepipe central pillar, elbows out to pin himself into the circle orbiting me. I was a modest spread, a picture portrait without a frame, topless and propped on a stool with a cloak I’d been given to cover up spilling like a waterfall from my waist. If I’d stood and spun, it would have flounced like a fancy gown. Until he’d come, I was happy floating two and a half feet in the air, confident that I was the prettiest dot for miles, a bright spark preparing to burn my brand of initials on the contract page the owner was verbally drafting.

I’d seen his performance earlier in the evening when I’d spent my last dollar on a ticket for entrance. For him, I might have paid a tip if I had it. Just as he commanded attention then, he now snatched the centre of gravity in the room from me, fixing a new star in a belt of cramped furniture. All that detritus was the reason the owner and his wife alone used a tent when everyone else had vans – theirs was packed to the rafters with junk they unloaded at every long stop. I’d been dismissively haughty at how cluttered it was, lying to myself that living out of a twin-chest trunk signalled attractive virtues of efficiency and austerity, not simply impoverishment. Wealth is shown by free space.

He dripped freedom, but of the elusive kind, that which has no possessions at all and no regard for space whatsoever, even as it bent backwards to accommodate him. His sure stride slashed a swath through the jumble and the ripples of his arrival led negotiations to pause and eddy around him for a moment. It gave me time to take him in. I started to feel like it mightn’t be a total trial to stow away in plain sight with this pack of cards just for the sake of free travel around the treasure map I’d been plotting since I were a little girl. At least if he were here, I’d have somewhere to rest my eyes.

Since he was only there to sate his own curiosity and confirm the rumour of a new recruit which had raced around ringside faster than one of the circus’ tame tigers, he yawned and stretched by the fire, feline but not tame, and let the owner and his wife resume their debate about how to describe me on a poster. Their voices snapped and crackled, brittle as the sparking, popping log in the fireplace now obscured by this newcomer, the silk specialist, the thread walker.

The wife debated my advertorial merits with herself more than the owner. “What’s a better draw, bearded lady or pretending she’s a man with tits? In that slapped-on suit, she’s your sharp son come to plot how to get his inheritance fifty years early. In heels, though –”

“I ain’t a lady. I’m a girl,” I said, expecting my resolve to be disregarded in the harshly crass discussion about money, to dissipate in the smoky haze like my soft, low-pitched voice usually did. It followed the vacuum carved in the silksmith’s wake to his black hole eyes, however, swallowed up by them as they held their gaze transfixed on mine. That in itself was gentlemanly, considering what of me was in plain sight on my chin, and a further ten inches below it. My leg twitched beneath the makeshift skirt like a cracked whip and I curled my brogued toes into the dirt floor to arrest its betrayal of decidedly ungirlish instincts.

“Can’t shave half her beard and split an outfit down the middle, because the boy half won’t look old enough to grow a beard,” the missus continued.

“I’m not a boy,” I growled reflexively, earning a sharp look from the wife. She narrowed her eyes at my pout, reaching the same consensus I didn’t have to say out loud. I’m a girl.

“Can you sing?”

“I can learn.”

The owner took over. “So we make her our bearded nymph. We can pad her up as a mermaid or a fairy or what have you, give her something to work with. She’ll learn to work fake hips and siren a tune until fashion or a swanky town calls for a lounge singer as part of the main act. Eventually she’ll grow curves, right? That’ll be swell,” the owner punned, praising himself for his foresight and adaptability. Instead of a dime-a-dozen bearded lady, they had themselves a bearded doll they could dress for multiple roles. “We’ll have to pluck your eyebrow though, missy, I’m telling you now.”

“That’s fine.” My fringe would still stand to hide my cinema-screen forehead. They could have sliced my eyebrows into four corners for all I cared. My beard was my selling point.

“Too short,” the silksmith said in a voice deeper than a volcano rumbling, tugging the rug out from under us all. The owners swivelled to face him as he stepped forward. “Sure it looks natural, but too natural. No one’ll believe she’s not a clever makeup artist.” His suspicion gave the owner’s wife pause for thought, and he didn’t help by continuing, “It never pays to underestimate girls.” He knelt on one knee at my shoes like he wanted to steal my breath for a better purpose than the one he did, by lifting up the cloak hung from my waist to the floor. For a second I panicked I was exposed beneath the skirt obscuring my view but not his, until I remembered my suit pants stood between him and anything relevant. In black cloth and shadow, my thin calves were no more interesting than flue pipe cleaners.

“Pull it,” I offered.

All three of them jerked their jaws my way. The silksmith dropped the sheet and clasped my beard, wrenching it so violently and suddenly I might have screamed if I hadn’t been used to the occasional assault. “Let punters line up and pull it. Like a kissing booth. Long as they don’t tear it out, they can have a go.” I had myself on a roll like jam, mouth moving to shake the silksmith free. “Hell, make it a kissing booth too. A dollar for a kiss. Two for a tug.”

The silksmith whisked the blanket off my hips like a magician pulling a tablecloth out from under a full set of glasses and cutlery. He moved out of view and set it around my shoulders like the owner’s wife had intended me to use it when she gave it to me, after I was made to undress to prove my credentials as a true female earlier. The feeling I was at some fancy hairdresser was driven home like an evening herd of cows when the silksmith started combing my long hair with his stubby fingers. “What you call a tug’s going to turn heads,” he said, vibrato richly reverberating against the back of my prickling scalp.

“Turned heads or stomachs, fifty cents,” I said.

The owner chuckled. “Ruthless.” Neither he nor the wife had thought to go near my breasts, satisfied at simply seeing their curves droop like bells. Even the silksmith didn’t look twice. Anyone can see from a mile away they’re real and punters would never think to ask to feel my breasts like folk often try and pat my face. Beard and breasts are all people see and use to determine whether I belong cast up or down on the see-saw sides they consider important. I’ve never been confused as to which and whose side I’m on.

“That’ll do okay,” I said, “for a stage name. I don’t mind Ruth.” It was close to my real name. By then, my hair had been gathered in bunches and was being braided, though it felt as if the silksmith were fashioning a rope unlike any pattern of plait I’d ever tried.

“Something like Babe to go with it, then, which doesn’t point out her age enough to attract the wrong attention,” the wife said. From the law, she meant. They wanted to encourage attention from the slightly unlawful, aged men willing and able to part with their disposable income for the sake of a picture or cuddle with a pretty novelty. Having kissed my share of toads by then, I knew what they were getting at and was vindicated in telling them I was sixteen, not twenty-one. Twenty-one knows what earns better.

“Lady Ruth?” the owner suggested.

“I ain’t a lady,” I repeated firmly.

“Dame Ruth,” the silksmith said, tilting my neck forward as his complicated braid neared its end squarely between my shoulders, his calloused fingertips grazing my back. How do they not pull on his smooth silk? I wondered. I never even felt them catch any strands of my fine hair.

“Too old for you, princess?” He murmured close to my ear, still plying my hair at its very tips. Being behind me, he couldn’t see my nipples iced over, or the bouncing pulse in my neck I was screaming at to settle.

Dame. It sounded wealthy. They’d call me ‘Dime’ behind my back, but that was none of my concern, as long as my tour of towns and suitors could proceed unimpeded. “Wear like who you want to be,” I shrugged, trying to loosen him, while rubbing my face which still stung from his ministrations.

It reminded the wife that they had to invest before they set me loose on a sideshow alley corner to collect for them. “You got a dress, girl?”

The silksmith was broader than me and had rocks of muscles packed like podded peas inside his faded cotton shirt. His abs weren’t padded, but they leapt out in protrusions beneath the binding tightly embracing his chest. His fisherman’s pants were made of patched, stained silk, like pyjamas, and clung over the bulge packed purely for show, but what a show it was, stretching the worn material to a gleam.

“You got one I can take in?” I pivoted to ask the silksmith direct, tugging away out of his grasp. “Finer the silk the better.” I did want to stipulate that the sheerer any dress were the better, so it poured over my long legs, hiding any hint I tuck, but that wasn’t something I was about to raise in the company of men.

The air chilled fifty degrees at my blithe query. The silksmith dropped and roughly untangled the braid, strands of it sticking to my bare back which had begun to sweat. I restrained my spine as rigidly as usual, passively resisting his yanking my neck back. I had plenty of practice in sitting up straight with books balanced on my head.

“I’ll trade you,” he replied more calmly than it looked like the owner and his wife expected.

“I only got one other suit, and neither have enough darts left to let out,” I said. My trunk brimmed with books, not clothes, so I couldn’t whip up anything new by picking apart what I had.

“I’ll trade you a promise, pumpkin. Don’t try to tease a man until you learn how to do so without getting nervous.”

It put me in my place harder than the fiercest smack. Instead of ducking in a curtsey with me under the tusks of the pink elephant crowding the cramped yurt, he threw me under its stomping feet, and rightly too. No one had said anything so as not to embarrass me so far, but I was as aware as they all were at the fact I’d turned scarlet from scalp to arched feet as soon as the silksmith started playing with my hair. Since the moment he abandoned the hearth to prostrate himself at my ankles, he’d brought its fire to burn my skin by convection even before he’d started touching me.

They could have taken that vulnerability and misused it by mistake, had the silksmith not intervened to mop up the massacre of his own making. “A mix of sass and innocence like that,” he addressed the missus, “ought to earn raises left and right.” She had wit enough to receive the lewd innuendo as it were intended, like a further negotiation on my behalf. It was true I’d pull punters of more types than your average pretty girl or bearded lady. I didn’t scare anyone at all, but it didn’t stop me challenging people. I could sell myself. She cocked her head at me, frowned, and re-evaluated the scribble she’d made in her book of accounts.

To his wife, the owner said, “She’s going to need a lot of makeup to bury that complexion. And a booth,” he added while I sulkily slung on my shirt and jacket, bow tie strung around my neck ready for hanging. My hands shook too much to tie it, so I folded them instead into arms clasped tight across my chest. The silksmith was air. I knew that, I’d seen his show. I was fool to think we had something in common.

“Who’s she going to billet with?” The wife responded.

“She can stay with me,” the silksmith interrupted, sewing right in as smooth as a steel needle. “What’s your name, palomino?”

Making fun of my flare deepened it under the egg glazing my face. A lopsided grin sought a truce, at the same time telling me he was amused to find his iron hands and contumelies could cook me on no more than a low heat setting. “Rudolph,” I answered, waiting for him to chomp and spit, Rudy? Sure it ain’t Ruby?

He just nodded.

“What books you got?” I asked, not expecting them to be in English in any case, but I wasn’t above learning whatever language they contained for the sake of something new to read.

He had none. It was months before I discovered he could write, a thousand times better than me to boot, and by then I wasn’t surprised. I ended up making something pretty good out of the dress he acquired from someone else by filling it with alluring false curves made of pale scraps of his rejected silks. Ended up making a kind of home too, I guess, amongst the buffering waves of pillows and smoothed glass vials and music boxes, there inside the driftwood whale belly with its beams for ribs and silk sashes for viscera.

3

My bed began as a nest of blankets atop the chest I brought with me, beneath a wall shelf of books I couldn’t stop collecting. Those that now don’t fit in my stuffed chest have to be bundled with silk ties and restacked each time we park.

Meals are taken from a pot large as a cauldron; the food is as repetitive as the servers’ small talk, its sentences like writing lines for punishment for talking in the first place. Conversational content with everyone is the same whether or not the names of subjects change and not nearly as interesting as re-reading novels. I soon forgot how I introduced myself to whom and carelessly parroted my own tall tales, boring myself and others three times over, which wasn’t enough to even the score, so I soon started eat alone, sharing scraps with the caged animals or the open sky. Rarely, I square up a well-dressed punter for a conversation, sometimes submitting to their casual advances for the sake of a lively talk. To offer more would be to sell myself too cheap, however, incurring the silksmith’s ire after all the effort he puts into finding me a suitable home.

Some of the folk are like some kind of family, but the majority are transient types here for what we can get as soon as possible. Only a few, like the silksmith, truly love their work and are glad to be lifelong earners, but theirs is the hardest work, and not the slightest bit romantic.

Not like the romance his body lies about offering, as though it were there for the taking when his arms are strung up in silk ropes weaved around him. The kind it promises in a whisper when he swirls in a dizzying dervish, everyone wondering how he’ll escape this one, this time, the knot of his own elaborate design, and gasping anew when he always does, revealing his chains to be insubstantial as a fleeting dream by freeing himself with the slightest flick of his wrist. He then flawlessly spins like a top from the apex of the big tent’s maypole right down to the grass floor turned to dirt by everyone’s trampling, only to flash up into the scaffolding’s shadows again, like a drop rising off a puddle in the rain.

His is the second last act in the show, timed to let antsy folk hypnotically relax at his pendulous motions before the all-in finale sends them home on a high. As soon as he steps out in his spectral costume of veils, they are lulled by his ephemeral quietude no one marks as sensual until men and women and kids alike shift in their seats to restore the passage of pooled blood that warms the metal row seats as they shuffle to the edges of them to better crane their necks and see the thick and thin straps that cuff his thighs and ankles. He strings the strips between his teeth, streaking them with darkly wet lines the same width as marks it cuts right back into his pale arms and legs and around his neck. Silk’s supposed to be feather-light and feminine, but the tangibility of his fading and fresh bruises in bright dusk hues against the white expose that as a fallacy. He wields silk as a weapon against gravity and himself, against the confines of ordinary humanity.

Inside the smaller ring he crafts, concentrated around his body like a cell, none but himself can touch him, save him, challenge him. He whirls faster than anyone could see, in a vortex it isn’t clear he can escape as long as the silks hold their skeleton ribcage tense. It surges in place as though inhaling, panting, even as the whole thing keeps moving and rotating fast as an electric fan, each silk train a tail cloud, whipping ribbons blown from it by its own centrifugal force.

He is whipped-up frost, but few of these folk down here have ever seen a blizzard, so the closest they equate it to in their minds and after-show chatter is with what I hear called a devil, a mini-tornado whisked up on dust plains. I see them often enough on our drives to forget they’re rare beyond the desert’s scope. With the right winds, they abound at the binary divide of the horizon, flitting like mirages, seams between the sky and ground, allusions to something too far away to fully recognise the outline and limits of, which instinct warns is dangerous, get closer.

Devils are more easily seen if you let your eyes blur, or peer at them out of your periphery. Even if you’re lucky enough to throw yourself in one’s path, bracing to be hit, all you get is a light pummelling of dust and leaves to the face no worse than a smacked kiss. Sometimes one strays close when we pull up on the roadside, and I never tired of chasing them for the rush of relief that leaves me laughing for minutes, like I raced to catch a falling star only to have it nip my hand with a nibble and flutter off like a butterfly.

The silksmith soars across the whole sphere of the high ceiling, so no one can tell where he’ll propel himself next. I’ve watched him train enough times to understand he often doesn’t know either. All anyone knows for sure is it’s over before observers think to try to study his strange patterns, too busy being spoon-fed wonder like cotton candy, not much to it but oh, how it tingles, and then it’s gone and your stomach’s still empty but your blood’s ringing like a phone call not being picked up.

Whether he lands with a tactile thud heard way up in the bleachers or alights on tiptoe like a true wind sprite, the spell and tension both break with his silent lightning, forked white wisps that flutter to the ground in his wake. It follows with a stunned delay before thunderous applause erupts and a breeze billows the tent as collectively held breaths all break their banks and rush forth to cool the sweat that drips and blackens the dust at his feet. He rises from his gracious bow restored to a mere man again, subject to the laws of nature, and punters nervously laugh away their discomfort at his earlier defiance which revealed cracks in the world they hadn’t expected to be shown for the price of a ticket or their frittered time.

He bows again, flexes his fingers free of their fatigue, then comes looking for me. If I don’t have my nose in books or newspapers scrounged from far away to know which ones were the best to target with ads, and if I’m not in his caravan, no one can say where I am. He knew better than to hunt since I greeted him halfway up his van’s steps, a stash of letters from poste restante scattered around like curled leaves. I needed to see them all spread out at once after a meal gone to hell with a gentleman I hadn’t screened properly, though I couldn’t have known better with what little I had to go on.

“Who’ve you been teasing now?” He sighed at the sight. “No lady tonight, puffin, are you?”

I swore at him, still reeling, each thought being shuffled beneath cups. I was more upset at the stitching of my intricately ruched shoulder being pulled than the damage wrought to my face, but neither were any of his business.

“I’m a girl,” I hissed for what I wished was the last goddamn time.

“No, perfume.” He sat beside me and gathered my papers, shuffling them into as precise an alignment as their crude edges and folds permitted before handing them to me to clutch to my sorry chest. “What you are is a woman.”

“Not yet, I ain’t.”

“You can hide your thoughts but not your emotions, you’re a woman,” he misogynised, pulling a thread of silk stained with sweat from his pocket like a long magician’s hanky and scrunching it into a ball. It was dirty enough already that I didn’t feel anything at his wiping the blood off my cheek with it. “Who do you think you’re landing, broadcasting yourself like that anyway? And I don’t mean the cinched suit. I’ve seen the ads, peacock.”

He may as well have just spat ‘prostitute.’ “You tell me. The landing expert.”

“I’m not sharing squat, pony, unless you ask nicely.”

It was going to be a hassle to have to haul the chest down the steps and find somewhere else to sleep, but if he were tossing me out, I couldn’t say I was surprised. It had been that kind of night, and the other gent were already enough to drum the fight out of me with one loud beat, like a gong finishing up a show. Everyone go home, like everyone has that option. “I don’t beg.”

“So you do have pride, then? You got shame beyond nerves?”

“I got self-respect.”

He considered this, winding the ribbon around his hand and elbow and tying the loop in an easily pulled-apart knot ready to toss and keep with all the rest. Seeing as it was reduced to rags with my filth, I guessed it was henceforth consigned to the training bin. “Enough to know when to say no?”

I took a little longer to answer than was necessary to spite him. If he wanted me to give up searching for a better life, he was going to be disappointed. I refused to be. “No.”

“Shall I teach you?”

Again, I had the honest answer ready pretty quickly, but I made him wait. That evening, when we were both clean as we could get, he pulled a cock made of melted truck tyre out of one of his drawers of folded clothes. It was large, but not half the size of some I’d seen by then or since.

“Surely that’s toxic.” I curled my lip.

“Cleopatra used to make cocks.” He ignored my concern, phrased as it was as disgust, and not as a great start to my lesson. I didn’t know if he was trying to defend his role as tutor, but he spoke in a livelier manner than I’d yet seen. Instead of his usual somnolent waltz, gracefully floating above the floor without making much impact, he moved more surely, taking up more space in the small room. He was as solid as the stone growing heavier in the pit of my stomach. “Out of the tightest weave of hessian or burlap, fine as silk their skins were, and she filled them full of live bees.”

“Live bees? But they’d be buzzing,” I said, brow furrowed.

“Mm,” he hummed, contented at the mere thought of it.

“What if one broke through?” What if the swarm of them did, pouring through its slit? Forget a swollen belly, the normal curse of a burst cock. She’d die, and not of birth. Egypt would be short one queen quick smart. What would Antony do then, selfish girl?

“Silk’s strong,” he said. “But if, I reckon it’d sting like hell.” He toyed with the black, lumpy cock in his small hands, gently rubbing circles on its tip, small as the motions I was making with my hips on the bed of pillows, unsuccessfully trying to relax. I wriggled a hand down to untuck myself while he stripped his shirt over his head and sighed with relief on unravelling his own tucked binds. Now we could both stretch and grow in more peace.

When he prowled towards me like a panther in the half light, black eyes hooding as he engulfed me in a slow pounce, fever spread through me as pin darts of adrenalin. Oh. The stone in my stomach. It was a magnet, after all, drawing the poles of our hips together.

“Imagine, though, peach blossom, all those bees coming home, cramped and crawling over one another like in their tiny hive. How sweet their elixir.” His voice was low as a whisper but it held his unique tenor, black ink in water, tinted darker as its level dropped.

“Put it away,” I said.

“Soon, pudding,” he said, near silent, lips against my ear. His vibrations through my skull were venom enough aside from the scent of petrochemicals he clutched. My mouth watered at the taste of his words. “In you first, or me?”

“You don’t need it,” I rasped, weak with yearning.

He carelessly tossed the cock behind him and it clunkily rolled somewhere unseen. I was fascinated by his smooth, short hair, which restored itself flat as glass the moment my hands finished running through it, like a pan of warm water. His shoulders were slim but not as sharply pocketed as mine, and they fit roundly in my cupped palms as though ready for communion. I hung my fingertips lightly from his protruding collar bone, my other hand creeping to where his hips jutted like holsters. I looped my fingers into his folded waistband and tugged it loose enough to fall until he were naked to the knees, the exposed hair as black as that scoring his crown. He saddled himself on my thigh and flowed against me, grinding up one side of my pelvis, still not aligned, achingly close to where my suit pants were stretched to shine, tenting their own big top.

And then he stopped. “Stay,” he said, casually leaning back and examining me at arm’s length like he had all my time in the world.

Equal parts of me battled, one half compelled to do as he said and submit to doing nothing, the other willing me to subvert our positions and grind him down until he begged for clemency. One course of action was disrespectfully disobedient, however, and so I stayed locked still for minutes. Beneath his probing gaze I grew, chest swelling, the tightness of my pants becoming unbearable as the ache in me turned nauseating. Sweat beaded under his glare, and I felt a drip travel between my breasts as I absently licked it from the dip above my lip, only to have it make me thirstier for his mouth, cracked open now as it was, though his eyes remained inscrutable.

I guessed he was shaken by the absence of submission, especially since my body betrayed me by glowing neon. I was blushing worse than the flustered queen of hearts, yet I still looked blank and haughty and refused to turn away. The gent earlier, and many more besides by then, had all told me I was too proud for a girl a hundred times over, and though it sunk in, it only scarred in ridges, never sculpting deep enough to carve out a changed course of manner.

“Is that it?” At last I spoke, cheated by his bravado. If he wanted to teach me how to handle rejection, he should have been the one to tell me ‘no’ right off the bat. Why stay still without consequence? I wasn’t looking for a slap nor expecting one, but some attention either way to know where I sat would have been nice. Use me or kick me out, my humble self decreed in bitter solitude, knowing which I’d prefer, while my skin did its own thing and combusted.

Like a moving statue, he finally advanced to squeeze my hand in his, closely studying their difference in form. His was made of slate. Mine was milk. He entwined our fingers and bent mine back until they shrieked with acidic pain, but there was too much affection in the gesture, the antagonism too childishly playful. To drive his harmlessness home, his large eyes sought mine and he frowned like he were appealing to me for favour, as an apology, unsure where to go. Violence didn’t suit him, but nor did hesitating.

He frowned harder as he touched the welt imprinted on the side of my face like a stamp, mapping its two risen hillcrests above and below my cheekbone. He wasn’t quick enough to elude my tongue on his wrist and his concentration shimmered into a diluted smile, the sight of which drowned me in dye so strong it seeped into his breasts as he pressed them against mine, and tinted his lily neck the colours of dawn in the desert.

Whenever the big tent comes down and all the stalls pack up, and we prepare to putt away down the road, I look back at the trampled ground we leave as we pull out. It’s the same field we arrived at, but now it’s rougher than scorched earth after a wildfire, soil churned and uprooted inches deep until it resembles salted silt. We leave at sunrise when the dirt is damp with morning dew, and since we tilled it so thoroughly with our boots and wheels, worms and frogs break the surface expecting rain, only to be cruelly denied by the dry draughts of summer sun steadily growing in intensity.

That first night, there was so much blood the stench of it stung my eyes. First it was in me, my cock, boiling over in my head while my body bucked and my skin roared like an untuned radio. I didn’t know it ran too in rivers down his legs. The dark hid it under gasps and cusses and the kisses he poured into the humid air until I flipped him over with a plea and ploughed as deep as I could push. His shivering teeth grated my tongue raw, mixing my blood with his syrupy saliva, rich as eucalyptus honey. He clawed open my wound with harsh burnishes I barely felt, but I didn’t lose a whit of sense of him gripping me as he went under in the final throes, mewling a whimpered scream against my heaving breasts.

When the crescendo of our clattering hearts subsided and I struck a candle to clean up, he lied he had his period. I don’t know what he did in his makeshift bed with his procession of wives I heard tell of before. I didn’t ask.

Just begged. Begged like I said I wouldn’t. Begged forgiveness for a crime for which I had no name until he anointed me with tears, rolling my ribs between his tiny fingers like a rosary, splitting my penance to be half his, me saying sorry until I was hoarse while he reassured me again and again in a tone of voice I didn’t deserve.

I offered to check the bruising and cut him like I know some people cut themselves with a kitchen knife, fillet their own flesh to guard against its healed return as tough scar tissue which hurts even worse the next time it’s broken. He turned me down and instead hugged me to his cramps for half a day, repurposing me as a hot water bottle to press against his empty stomach. It gurgled and settled and cooled with sleep as time went two full rounds of hands in his wristwatch propped sideways on my trunk, its ticking the only sound aside from our murmurs and whispers each time we rearranged our numbed arms and legs. Neither of us worked the next show, me owing to the redness of my black eye which no make-up could cover, him citing illness.

In the pitch black of the next night, both of us were blind without recourse to any silk-binding. That habit formed later. Then, we didn’t move, didn’t eat. I slaked my thirst with his low sighs, and then with his kiss. I rubbed his breasts, smaller than mine, marvelling at how they filled my palms perfectly, same as his stony plinth of ass fit the odd contours of the crook of my narrow hips. All was so calm, I didn’t change colour in the slightest, an invisible accomplishment not made known to him. I wouldn’t call it a waste, though, finding out I could be stronger than I thought, if only by accident and only in the dark. It drew me closer to keeping the promise he’d probably forgotten.

4

Now, he’s learned to use me properly. Now, we soak the sheets and cushions nightly with only clear liquid of half a dozen viscosities. Now he’s licked every inch of me clean of salt and his mouth’s still watering into mine, tongue needling and rough as a cat’s.

“You’re still taking too long.” When he was still writing, I was surging on a flood of pheromones, compelling him to crush me. Now I feel ill more than anything else, thanks to its tide deserting me. His slow beginning has me frustrated and anxious to be restrained with comfortingly tight knots.

“Makin sure you get all proper prospectives, little paraffin lamp. They took the time to write back and all.” He’s standing naked by the tallboy, putting the music boxes back in the order only he knows by heart, which I swear changes to taunt me. The letters and ink he brushes into their Turkish box on top of my heavy wooden chest, where I used to sleep curled into a crumpled up ball so many months ago.

“I know you’ve been intercepting and filtering as you please,” I complain as he ties my wrists in bows he braces like bandages up my arms, sealing my elbows together. “I ought to have a word with every post office soon as we alight.” I’m madder at the local mail staff than at him for his stealing my letters, interfering with a federal business and the basic civil right to untarnished privacy, and cluck my tongue as he repeats his bandaging bind from my curling toes to above my knees. “You don’t look like a Rudolph to me.”

“Perhaps, possum, but your nose is well lit up tonight,” he says, nibbling it when he finally straddles me. He draws faces in the blood rising on my torso with his fingertips, chasing it like he was skipping stones, blowing smoke rings in concentric circles. He encourages ripples of goosebumps to flow down and form a pond of warmth in my lap.

“What’s black and white and read all over? All over,” he says. “Paper doll,” he murmurs in response to himself, not half a dashed mite later.

His chest is rising and sinking fast, drawing me in a little further with the collapse after each breath. He straightens his back like I always try to carry mine, except he does it to spread his breasts out and lessen the way they hang like heads ashamed. I clasp as much of them in my mouth as I can, the textures of his smooth skin varying from glossy to glass. I cover the surfaces of his nipples with saliva and pull back, blowing gently to have them quake into cold peaks I then nuzzle hard, upwards, squeezing his flesh towards his collar bone. His look starts to glaze into a state of singular hunger and he curls his neck down to peck a row of kisses upon my fringe. He is a frond of mimosa beckoned with massaging I in turn slow to try to lure him closer.

It kind of works. He sweeps forward, letting his weight like a feather rest against my cock while he tugs at my wrists behind my back, testing their lack of give. He’s lighter than he should be since he keeps his muscles poised like he’s going to fight or fly instead of fuck. In lieu of pressure, though, wiry tendons in hamstrings hard as hollow bark canoes grip my sides where my buttocks curve into hollows, fitting them well by luck of design as well as by practice. I swallow and reopen my dry mouth with a smacking sound that’s almost loud enough to echo. It’s a familiarly wet and seductive prelude and sends my mouth drier as I begin to pant.

He loses himself in my chin, tracing its muffled contours with his thumb while coiling tendrils of my hair in licks over my budding nipples. Darkness is seeping into my peripheral vision like the ink blots obfuscating my name on paper now tucked up in their white folded sheets of envelopes. When I relent and close my eyes, I’m rewarded for my patience.

He’s so soft he has to press for a second before I can feel his lips on mine, cool and sweet as crushed sugar cane. His hands now travel jaggedly, catching on every bump of my breasts and belly and stumbling to tarry in every nook until he absolves me of longing with a firm grip around my fully bloomed cock.

I lick from as far down as I can lean, his heart to his ear in one long, dizzy motion, retracing my path with a gentle blow before dragging the daggers of my canines back over him in a cross hatch. Hands stolen from use and only kneading each other, I use my mouth to clutch and push and twist his pectorals. They’re hardly breasts considering their size, but they do as they ought when commanded, stinging and rising when captured between my pincers of pearly whites. They refuse to shirk away, embracing pain which I deny by cupping them in pockets of hot air, then abandon them to ply the gaps between concertinaed ribs bisecting his chest, tongue between them like sealant poured to fix cracked tiles, thick, creamy icing between layers of angel sponge cake.

I scry out a shiver from him in recompense for his pulling me up onto my knees, ass drawn into the air like a puppet, suspended by my cock from his hand as he slides down my legs onto a cushion below. It’s no pretence; I’m one of his silks, being wetted and knotted so he can twist me around his lithe body better, closer, faster, harder.

I have to wrest back circulation in my arms and legs, though, veins scattered and scrambled and prickling with pain, so I lean back a tad to raise my thighs above my hips. He rises like a wave and spills down, laying me horizontal, my arms hooked behind my back in the crevice of two cushions so my hands are free at my side. My elbows are pinned beneath my spine. I don’t know if it’s their trapped pulse or my heartbeat that echoes down the length of my back.

I tuck my knees up and he sits back like I’m a chair, rocking his slick, hot, parted raw flesh on my groin until everything inside and out my stomach’s sliding, tipping, tilting. To keep him in place, my shins dangle in an invisible web, feet tingling hung in space, my shoulder blades carving secure ruts in the coarse grains of his gold-threaded cushions.

He chews my left breast, unimpeded by self-consciousness at my seeing his from this angle – he knows no angle is unflattering to him, to me, now he’s over the first hurdle of worry after unbinding his dainty chest. He sucks until the juice of his saliva’s gone and then bites hard to elicit a gasp, gnawing down my abdomen, then spitting me out and rearing up like a snake preparing to strike, ready to slam and grind my mortal body to dust.

And yet he elects to descend like a breeze, slowly sowing himself down upon my dripping, rose-red cock in half a dozen small lurches of his hips. Each time he sinks he drains more life from my heart as blood pours down my body to meet him, until my chest’s an empty, concave crater of crushed lungs above which heaving breasts run with sweat. We sigh long and loud in unison as he settles and tightens around me agonisingly slowly, so I don’t realise I’m trapped in a vice until he’s completely clenched, the pressure of holding the tension causing him to shiver.

I seek his mouth through the bright haze, but his distinct shadow is high above me, and he furthers the distance by closing his eyes as he rolls into a rhythm that chases my pulse. I arch my back above my crushed elbows, thrusting back in time. It’s almost enough to drown out the pins and needles shooting through my shoulders and strangling at the base of my skull.

I don’t see him until I feel his breath on my lips and snap open my eyes in surprise. He cuts me like butter with the slightest nick of his tongue. In an instant I’m contorted, nerves all bunching as pulled threads being unravelled and rolled into a knot bigger than a tumbleweed as he fills, sucks, burns and imbues me with splinters of fizzing light brighter than Chinese firecrackers.

He reaches behind him and I wonder if he’s going to yank my ropes up, but instead he worms a finger, two fingers, in behind my cock, trapping it still where it presses against him inside, his fingers restrictedly poking my cock’s head. Paralysed, I cry out and he shushes me, praises my endurance as tears cloud my vision, and holds still for a spell before slowly withdrawing. I know now why he left my thighs unbound.

He easily prises me apart and teases the first finger inside me so smoothly I can’t feel the ridges of his knuckles until he adds the second finger, spreading me gently open, knuckles curved. His fingers find traction either side of where I know it’ll make me scream if he lathes without warning and alternate the intensity of their rubbing every few beats while he tightens himself down on my cock again, hooking me, a threaded needle tugged through resistant canvas, each movement furthering stitches that climb up my torso and knot in my throat. This embroidery of pleasure with which my body is being gilt forms a maze I succumb to running through without searching. A lurking whiteness threatens to peer back at me around the bend at every juncture, but for now I only chase its frosty tail which splashes ice into my lungs, freezing my breath with mint flavouring like a candy cane.

He turns blunt and spearing, reaching, scoring deep and holding me steadily fixed, digging in his metaphoric heels as he stands his ground above me, a victor, a conqueror. His breathing’s drumming refrain thunders a roar of warning that sounds through the bones, not ears. He frees my breasts of where he’s squeezed me sore, wrenching back his hand to hold against his clit. He presses hard with constant, consistent speed, unidirectional, up more than down, leaning into himself as into me, the stray thumb of his left hand smoothing my balls as they tighten and twitch so hard they almost vibrate.

He dives down to groan in my ear, eyes closed, breaking the seal of my held breath as I whimper in reply, throat clicking. He does it again, low and hot, louder, more urgent, the sound of my own floating voice fed back to me, regurgitated, choking me. It invades what’s left of my head; I can’t shut up now and groan with abandon. I seek his mouth and sink my hard tongue in it ineffectively, our teeth clashing, unable to get the purchase I seek. My legs move on their own to the very limits of their binds, and he doesn’t try to reclaim me as I curl my hips high repeatedly to catch his thrusts, wrists straining, his wild moans clawing higher and dragging me to the precipice. I want it to end at this, trapped in this whirlpool of blank space, no end at all.

He has the strength to make the last thrust inside me the hardest and deepest it’s been yet, parting me, fastening me as I push into him, the pair of us shrinking tight around each other as he leaps and I fall into the implosion, tumbling down the rabbit hole.

He eases the pressure and slows his hands gradually, gracefully, composing, drawing it out, smearing the darkness through us both so it spreads and sinks in entirely, staining red dye down every one of my limbs like the sweat that pours down my chin and drips through the filigree filter of my beard until the upended, shook soda pop bottle of my head is as empty as it can get. As he extricates himself and climbs free, I shudder out of time with the unsteady cadence of my heart, squinting at his casual expression through my shambles of consciousness that feels more akin to waking from a nightmare than a dream.

I don’t resent all this faux romance and never did, but I’m still not certain I welcome it or have learnt anything but how to withstand dark arts I’ll never again encounter with another living soul. With his skills and airs, he plays cat’s cradle with my body and refashions it as he wishes, shaping me to fit his preference, leaving me bedraggled and rattled. He stretches both me and the seconds like an elastic band. I can’t think straight when time’s revealed to be as capricious and unpredictable as the space confining my body, which he compresses to trap me distinct and alone. He whirls time between his fingers, teases it, scratches its chin and it rolls over for him, happy as I am to wear his leashes. For him, time comes. Space folds and melts the gap between us for seconds that exhaust me as though they were years.

He doesn’t look pleased or proud of his magic as he unties me. Stabbing pins and nails shoot through my restored veins as my throbbing equalises and he gently smooths and helps my stretch each of my limbs, carefully arranging them on his bed before attending to his damp silks. No one thing’s more discernible than any other in his expression, yet he has the gall to call me inscrutable. At least both of us are as red as one another when he buries his nose in my sunken cheek, pooled with condensation from my sweating and his panting. His puffs of warm gusts cool me overall as each rush of air dissipates in the long pauses punctuating his exhalations, which he times to give me space to expand my own chest as it tessellates with his.

No kiss. My beard’s scraped his mouth raw inside and out.

5

He hides the letter until the night before the night before we’re due to leave, or I was due to leave. It came with a photo of a handsome enough older gentleman, a bank statement to suffice as a proposal, and a staunch proviso I’m to meet. I have to hack my hair off to prove my devotion. Apparently it’ll stop other men and ladies looking at me until the wedding’s done and dusted. What’s more, it’ll prove I’m serious about being a married woman and fit to mother kids, and most importantly, that I’m willing to make sacrifices for his sake if I give up what counts as a girl’s most treasured possession. Of public importance, not personal, the man projects, is that I lose the beard. Again, the letter stresses it’s only for now, so the townsfolk accept I’m making an effort to fit in.

I’ve had my beard almost as long as I’ve had my breasts. It is, however, a very convincing proposal. There are enough rings printed on the paper to place on each one of my fingers. If I’m to be departing to that level of finery, I didn’t need to work these last few days, but ignorance made my stay amongst the crew continue to be mutually civil right up until the end, so I don’t hold it against the silksmith.

He holds the sharpened razor tentatively against my jugular. One more time, we have. He’s been aware of its significance and looking forward to it for days longer than I’ve had. I’m in shock. It’s hard to tell which of us is sadder for him and happier for me, but it’s obvious I’m the winner in the unbalanced equation he himself calculated and wrote at my request. I’ll pay him back, I swear for the thousandth time.

He binds me to a borrowed chair next to a bucket for a basin, and kisses my beard all over. He trims it to unevenly patchy stubble and kisses that, grazing his cheeks near bloody. He kisses away the shaving foam and water and tiny shards of hair, consuming them, licking the oily soap up and gulping it down greedily. When finally I’m smooth and dried, he unties me so I can raise my hands. My fingertips stick to my skin, it’s so soft and pliant, like it’s sucking them in. Only with the dry backs of my hands can I gauge how smooth it really is. Not like glass. More like the surface of his stomach over his muscles when I haven’t pecked it to pieces to goose pimple it.

It’s strange, and I spend long seconds admiring his job. The instant I lower my arms, he claims credit in the form of possession. He kisses me until we’re both senseless and made reckless by a heady lack of air. Why stop there? I unbutton my carved pearl shell studs and peel off my shirt.

He shaves every inch of me, starting with my armpits, then the fine, pale hairs from my navel to the dark thicket enclosing my cock like downy thorns around a rose ripe for the plucking. There he repeats the same process as my face, licking up my tiny hairs in their stew of cold, fluffed foam, then slowly swallowing down my bare, naked cock and sucking hard on balls which took so long to shear safely.

I quiver at how cold it all is to have so much night air and wetness where it’s never been, not so much at once as he’s ensuring assails me. My face is tingling beneath its burn, and my balls look and feel twice their size, though that may be due to the fact they’re ready to burst at his plying my shaft, smoothed with so much saliva and water it’s slick as an eel. His furnace of a throat contracting around me is almost painful to withstand, and my hips buck, out of control, before my upper body folds like a collapsing house of cards down on him.

I’m so used to wearing a blindfold, it takes his hot, wet palm unfurrowing my brow to realise I can blink them open and see of my own volition. I see him diffidently regarding me, not sure what to make of the stranger who’s come undone in his hands.

The last to go is my hair, which he braids, snips, and binds at both ends with silk before putting it in the Turkish box with all the now-redundant letters. In his mercurial mirror I see myself at last, a face swimming in the warped glass covered in itching dried streaks where tears fell in straight lines, unhindered by hair. My scraggly wolf’s mane is being brushed and fluffed and scratched.

“Puppy. Or is it poppy?” he says, laughing while ruffling my muzzle, his face almost as red as mine in our colloidal silver-backed reflection, flecked with foam where mine is bare.

“If you’ll remember me such,” I say. It’s more of a request. One last one, which he accepts with a grin as lopsided as his crooked teeth.

illustrated by Mar Gyorin

I wear a suit to man the big tent entrance. When I sit there in a dress, I am the door bitch, door slut, door cunt. In a suit, I’m the ticket man. Tonight, the crowd’s so placid that it’s plainly in no need of an actual bouncer, but it seems I’m mistaken for one. Folk straighten up as they approach to pay, conspicuously overly polite as though I might exercise some arbitrary power and deny them entrance to the spectacle. I don’t need to disguise my unevenly distributed loyalties to the circus performers tonight, so I tell everyone to look forward to the tigers and especially to the man with the silks.

Every so often when the tent flaps open to let punters in, a breeze licks my chin and I shiver. As soon as the show starts I bid farewell to the skeleton crew lingering outside, making sure to not be delayed by their indignant cries about how they didn’t recognise me earlier, and it’s my fault for that. I am collected from the front trestle gate by a man, not my betrothed like I was expecting. I gather this fellow’s in service.

We go to his master’s, a white castle on another hill. It’s so richly decadent it isn’t at all surprising when it reveals itself against the black night sky like a negative photograph – since the letter’s reveal, I’ve been whisked along as though in a fairy tale. The house is so like I’ve dreamed of for years that it feels like déjà vu, like I belong. I’m guided through corridors and grand halls to a dining room without a view of anything but what’s inside. It isn’t just my husband I’m meeting, but his other wives too, who twitter approvingly at my mode of dress and obediently short hair, lying flatly gelled to my nape.

There’s a mirror covering the opposite wall from skirting to ceiling, but I don’t see myself in it. Just a bare-faced stranger in a suit with a side-part. I look like a banker, I suppose. I look like the kind of person entrusted with other people’s money. The only word that comes to mind is ‘sufficient.’

Dinner’s a solemn affair punctuated by questions about my upbringing and winding journey. When we cleanse our palates with glasses of sherbet between courses, a tray is brought to one of the women bearing a piece of paper which my fiancé commands her to read it out. She delicately clears her throat.

“My love dreams on parchment for a pillow case
Drawing hope steadily as breaths in comma breaks
Painting pictures with long fingers of vigils’ gentle face
Setting tableaus with silverwares from which I mayn’t partake
Her sighs poke stars in darkness I once mistook as clear
Illuminating man’s imagining he owns his own life
She keeps time’s beats locked inside a chest of years
Her peerlessness a sin of the same intransigent might
So I cast this spider thread upon cold winds, bid take her in
like a dress of seamless fit, stitch and bind her, deep beneath her silken skin.”

It’s enchanting for a spell, and a nice diversion from my staid recounts of dirt tracks and ferris wheel mishaps, I think, until they all start expectantly looking at me. Do I have to recite something offhand? It’s not enough I’ll share their beds and late evening and lives, I have to entertain them with an impromptu performance over our first supper?

One look at my burbling cauldron of pickling skin and they let it slide. Tonight I’m off the hook. Still raving about the poem, they pass it amongst themselves and add fingerprints and smears to the many already on there. The page is worn flat of folds from being uncreased so often.

It reaches me and blurs. For a little while I’m blind.

Dessert is peppermint ice cream which coats my tongue with fragrant oils. Reckon it’s about eight-thirty. Reckon there may still be time if I leave now.

“I want to go home,” I say quietly.

“You are, darling,” the plagiaristic poetess says.

Darling. Pippin, Puck, parasol, peony. Plato, play-dough. Pleiades, potato, penguin, precious, pussy-willow. Princess.

Another more perceptive woman assures me someone will fetch my chest from the circus in the morning once I’ve passed the final unspoken test. The man’s already retired to leave us to sort ourselves out, to designate roles for the play yet to begin. As ringleader, he needs time to prepare himself.

“I’m going home,” I announce, and leave the table gaping.

#

I slip on my dress in the dark, tousling up my shaggy feather cut, and dash to the big tent though light rain. It mixes the grease of the heavy meal and my fast run into a waxy muck that smooths my chapped lips. I lift my hem to avoid puddling ruts, skirt pulled in a bowl shape like I’m picking apples. I wipe my sweat-soaked palms in its deep folds. Because my chin’s as bare as the day I was born, I feel the occasional glimpses of moon burning it like sunshine, which is strange even for me, I suspect, until I raise the back of my hand to my cheek and recognise without a mirror I’m as red as a post box stuffed full of half-sent letters.

I stake out a vantage spot in shadow just in time, stepping sideways when a punter calls out, “Out of the way, lady.”

“I’m a girl,” I say over my shoulder.

“Too old,” a little kid denounces as he creeps in front of me. I lift him up and set him on my hip so he can see better. He grips my hair with sticky fingers. “Are you a mum?” he squeaks. Why else would a woman have short hair?

“Yeah, I’m a mother.” Fine.

“What’s your kid’s name?” He rabbits, heels stabbing my groin like tiny spurs and I thank the good lord I tuck. I jump at the odd sensation when he pats my smooth face and nods, curiosity as to my gender sated, though for that alone it seems. “How old are they? Are they here?”

Of all the many ways I anticipated this evening progressing, getting groped and interrogated by a toddler wasn’t on the list. He shuts up as the lights dim and the silksmith takes command of the centre of the fat rope circle.

His loops of silk are supposed to be like the letters he spins on pages, large and tight and infinitely controlled. His whole act is a show of calligraphy. Maybe it’s because he ate that soap, and so much of my hair. Because he took me in.

He looks like he don’t care. He scribbles and scrawls hard enough to blot out and cover up everything, until the white lace letters is so densely overwritten with chaos it erases away to nothing and goes blank.

I put the child down and can’t stand up again. My knees are cotton candy. Hard toffee packs the space around my lungs and collapses my heart.

He’s supposed to be a devil. He’s supposed to be dust, whispering wind grazing over corporeal masses without leaving a mark. Silk can stop bullets, yes, but at the right angle and with enough force of momentum it tears through soft flesh like it were an axe cleaved cleanly in sweating brie. His muscles aren’t soft when they touch me, but they aren’t supposed to be anything more than smoke when they’re floating free in the air.

They aren’t supposed to be tangled there on the ground.

All his silk and blood is in the wrong places. The dust below him is darkly damp but not with perspiration.

He always had a low centre of gravity, when he wasn’t defying it entirely. Now it’s collecting interest on its revenge at being mocked so beautifully. His curvy hips are writhing like the charmer’s swarm of snakes, unnaturally and independent of his senses. I take his hands, which though cold to touch are unharmed but for their short, tough fingers being as mangled and brittle and calloused as usual, dabbed with week-old ink-stains. All his gripping powder’s rubbed off on his silks, leaving just muddied sweat and grime for me to claim. His pupils are blown as burnt popcorn.

There’s nothing to say that could be heard, no words nor silent prayers, but I tell his smashed shell anyway exactly what I mean to say.

6

I did find the riches I expected to uncover at the end of that rainbow caravan string of beads which appears like a ring of toadstools forming fairy circles in wide open glades, stays a few days, then vanishes in the night. For the first time in my life, I watched it clatter away in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, grown silent before it disappeared altogether. It was like watching the Mary Celeste float away on Denial River without a paddle. For days I waited for the treasure I’d claimed from it to disappear too, but he remained solid to the touch, if battered.

Every morning a doc climbs the hill and tells me to keep feeding him with soaked rags as I’m doing. I sterilise but never cut his long yards of silk. He’d hate that. Never mind having to wear the expense of buying new ones when he’s ready; destroying them would be a sacrilege. Because they get underfoot, I end up scrubbing the wooden slats with part of a length, wearing another section as a bonnet to control my fluffy hair, and bandaging his reset bones with the far away end. Doc doesn’t even notice a length’s all one and the same connection while he’s stepping over their tripwires.

There’s a scrap of newspaper spread which I dust daily, folded like it’s sitting in a real frame when really it’s glued to a slab of wood backing which stands up on its own angled weight. In the background of the picture is the pair of us a year younger, moving my chest into his van, packing it away that very first evening. The photo sits on the Turkish box atop that very chest. All his music boxes on the tallboy are polished with the grease of my skin’s oils. I turn them so fast the tunes nearly flip inside out. I know every slightly wrong note and beat off by heart and can whistle them like a lark. I do, all day, keeping his melodious snores company with a harmony.

It’s ironic then that when he finally wakes up, it’s to the brittle grind of me scratching my stubble on my cotton collar, nodding my head in agreement with myself. In a day hence he eats real food at long last. Another week and he feels up to talking. First topic is a question that informs me he could have been speaking a lot sooner, if he wished, but he didn’t want to start to avoid having to raise the inevitable.

I answer that his prediction was on the money. I found a reason to stay in this town after all.

“Went well?” he asks, still wondering why I’m not sleeping over at the gentleman’s place. I forgive him since the knock to his skull was pretty bad.

“Could have been smoother.” I rest my coarse face on the pillow by his bruised poker one. Truthfully, I’m not worried, and while that surprises me, it’s not unsettling. We can read and write and my body’s intact. You can see the sea from our parking spot and we haven’t been issued notice to move on yet. The townsfolk kindly sympathise with our predicament, and so far I’ve not spent as much on food at the market as I suspect I should have been charged. It’s possible my former betrothed is helping us in spite of my rudeness. I attribute that small mercy to his appreciation of the silksmith’s poem.

The second thing that kept the silksmith quieter than he ought to have been during that first week is something he has me find out on my own. It explains why he ordered me out the room to avail himself of the bedpan alone as soon as he could sit up.

How I learn he can’t walk yet is when he accuses me of tying him up while he was napping. Even though his leg bones are healing, locked fast in their splints, he never peeps when I change their bandages, not like the fuss he puts up when I rewrap his battered skull. Instead of lifting the blanket covering him from above the knees down, I let him have the thought I’d do such a thing to him without permission. It won’t last long enough.

His tiny mounds of breasts heave with indignation. I place a hand on the ribs strung between them and feel them rock like the guardrails of an unsteady rope bridge about to snap. I tease benignly, “If I left you now, you might die.”

“Untie me.”

“No.”

“Loosen them. It hurts. You bent my toes too far. Didn’t I teach you better, panda bear?”

Phantom pain doesn’t happen in limbs that can be felt. I shake my head free of tears that splinter in my ‘black’ sleep-deprived eyes. It barely works to hold them back, so I lure him forward for a kiss and thieve the chance to wrap a loose strap of slipped bandage around his face, blindfolding him.

“I don’t like you like this, pear.”

“Too bad.” Now the tears can fall silently.

“I’m sorry.” He says, testing the waters, shrinking under the cold burden of not wholly false contrition, showing both me and his traitorous body deference. If we’re his captors, he has to ingratiate himself to get on our benevolent sides. But he knows I have no pride or shame to which he can appeal, only self-respect. He knows I only ever do what I think is right for me. That’s why now he wants me now to berate him as useless, to leave him. I’m scaring him with inconsistency. He’s never seen me selfless.

Because I’m not. I tighten the blanket around his shins and say his name. I say it in such a way to convey that I think I probably understand why he’s afraid. I say it firmly enough to mimic the voice inside his head responsible for disciplining him when he needs it, that tells him to go to sleep, to not keep training when his muscles are cramping, to not step off the platform into the path of an oncoming express train, to drink water when he’d prefer soda. I use the voice that tells him, when he’s as high as he can get, to not let go. When I’ve earned his attention, I steal his next plea straight off his dry tongue and tell it back to him in a voice as low as his. “Stop it.”

“A real man wouldn’t do this.” He’s talking about himself, but he meant the low blow subtext.

“You don’t know what a real man’d do.” I return fire, knocking his jaw loose without as much as a caress.

It hurts us both. He crinkles up his spiky shoulders like an umbrella, lips sealed in a line, about to rain behind his blindfold. I sigh raggedly to shake the sob out of my sore throat before continuing. “I don’t want to control you. I want to show you darkness,” I explain. “I want to give you the same nothingness you show me when you blind me.”

“You can’t. As long as you’re here, nothing is nothing.”

“Yeah.” That’s what I want to prove right now, in this caravan on the outskirts of a town I don’t know from Adam. All that matters is it’s by the sea and sky and they’re both free, like us. Some folk would pay to be either one of us right now. Some have before, and they never paid as much as we were worth. We can’t hide or bind the past or future with a bandage, but we can lick our wounds until they heal.

“You red yet, posy?” he asks.

I look down to double-check. “No.” I owed him a promise, once upon a time. I’m not nervous anymore around him.

“So you are teasing me.” He still isn’t satisfied. “Let me go.”

“I’ll trade you,” I say. “For a poem.”

You’re a poem, poet.”

That’ll do nicely. He can’t see me nod. “Darkness isn’t empty when I’m with you. It’s filled with waiting to be kissed. That’s why I’m staying.”

He is quiet for a long time. I can’t stand it and am about to break the tension by pinching his nose, when he finally says, “I’ve been saving since we met.”

At that, I kiss him instead. “I’ve been saved.”

He lets me loop our tongues and call the working parts of his body towards me, lets me sink my fingers into his shorn hair scarred through with garish, black stitches that won’t come out for days. His stubble grows faster and thicker than mine. Our necks stretch to accommodate the swelling of our chests as they brush together, rubbing lightly. Contact strikes a fuse in us both, snapping the elastic stretched taut between our knots of hearts and threading it into clock gears that tick to the beat of our rising pulses, counting down.

He picks up the pace quickly, capturing control from me like a white flag in a game of castles and turning my syncopated sighs around on the waves of his conductor’s hands, spinning us into a slowly rising spiral. My hands stagger haltingly downwards, skirting over his thin waist and curvy hips and alighting on his thighs, which are softer than they were last time I felt them. Goose bumps shadow my path, forming thick raised ribbons like whip lash welts, but his legs stay cold as I gingerly prise them apart and balance between them on my knees.

My open palms travel down over bows of bandages to meet his diamond of hair, longer than my regrown beard for now, but so much softer. Both middle fingers waste no time minutely pressing either side of his clit, slowly tapping barely inside his lips which pucker, impatiently throbbing. My tongue skates from his navel into the dip where his teardrop opening is widest and winking at my cautious approach. It wants to let me in, but he’s already swelling plumply, almost closing it. A clear drop falls like a tear on the bed of my thumbnail and I lick it up, wetting my teeth.

I press my nose sharply into his stomach to hold my place while he slips down the jigsaw pieces of cushions to fit his lower back over one I tug beneath him for support. I dot my wet fingers down the line stitching his thighs to his body, squeezing his ass hard and leaving it clenched as I then set upon his clit, rubbing it gently, left and right hand alternating and caressing its outer boundaries, to its sides and above and below it, feeling its warmth expand to try to meet me. My tongue toys with the back wall of his entrance, ignoring the front, depriving him of stimulation inside where he swells hot and smooth. When I push two fingers in with ease, then three, swollen bumps envelop my fingers like juicy grapes on a bunch, soft, smooth pearls for the taking.

He breathes out deeper with each exhalation, tilting his neck so far back his face is barely a pointed chin to me. I know that under the blindfold, his eyes are closed. His hands paw weakly in my wolfish hair and I wonder if he misses its length, but then he grasps with fists clenched so tight I wonder if he wants me bald instead.

Blindfolded and immobilised, he loses his composure worse than I ever do.

“Rudolph.” For once, he’s using my name correctly. “Fuck, Rue, you… There, like that.” He’s so surprised that I comply, like it’s a new phenomenon for me to obey his every direction. “This is… princess, when –”

I thrust four fingers deep inside him and he cuts himself off on my stroking him to come hither, while I suck hard on his clit. It swells and melts like butter as I lathe it on the flat of my tongue to capture all of the dancing muscle that’s kissing me back, his lips and mine so wet there’s no friction at all besides that formed by his tightening around me.

My free hand struggles to tug my trousers down just enough to give me access to only my cock, which I lavish with quick, long pulls, firm enough to lift myself up off the backs of my numb shins and sink my face farther forward.

“More, Rue, harder, you… Yes,” a gasp and he rolls his sore spine as much as he can to compensate for his cinderblock hips, thrusting out of time with the tremoring quivers I inspire. I hook him hard inside, pulling his dead weight, my fingers pressing in a circle in order like clockwork as they rub on the other side of my mouth. He lurches and nearly tears what’s left of my hair out in clumps. “STAY.

He bids me listen with a command one would issue a dog, yet he’s the one begging. I heed. I heel. I nip, growl, lick, suck and grind. I moan as I feel myself tighten, arteries constricting and throbbing as fiercely as if my limbs were bound tight, and his pants turn to a hail of clipped cries rising in volume as he approaches boiling point.

His knees tremble a tad against my ribs in the faintest pitter-patter, like the start of a sun shower. I know I’m not imagining it. It’s just a reflex, but a reflex means something, doesn’t it? That there’s strings in there that aren’t severed? He’s a spider, he’s a writer of the finest calligraphy, a skywriter who entertains the rich and powerful and the masses exactly as he pleases. His loops are the greatest show in the world. He’s a devil, defying death daily. A devil who screams like a man when I make him come and keep coming until I’m caught up and equally undone.

My cock spills silk webbing onto the material of the same colour stretched tight beneath me. It soaks to translucent as I milk myself dry, eking out every last painful contraction of my heart and hips, until I feel I can’t breathe and come to realising I’m panting fit to burst. I let my head fall back to open my throat to the humid air. Silk drapes from the beams and is scattered in criss-crossing strings around the outskirts of the room sealing us in its centre, safe inside the eye of a tornado. I have a lot of cleaning up to do, I realise, as my bright halo of reverie fades to a dull, soft-edged pale, the same colour as his skin in the dusk.

I rearrange his legs and flop down onto the damp cushions beside him, tracing my fingers in the glittering sheen of sweat on his stomach where his silk strips have come askew. The way his muscles are divided like an abacus, it’s like there’s a square ready made for letters to be printed inside. I dig my nails in to mark him as red as he’s now made me. I sign my name as it stands for now.

He tugs the makeshift blindfold down and wipes his face with it, then clasps the fur tight under my chin and twists.

“I have a headache,” he complains.

“I’m a girl,” I correct him, and let him tickle me until I beg for mercy.

See this story’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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