I would never forget the night I saw Maxa decompose before me. I was a young woman, barely budded, but I’d been able to make my way to Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol by telling my mother I needed to go to church.
My mother was a devout woman, a seamstress, and when I walked out the door she kissed me and said she was pleased I was seeking God’s wisdom. When she pulled away I saw there was a black spot of blood where she’d brushed a pricked finger against the sleeve of my coat.
The entire way to the theater, a crow had fluttered around me. It fluttered from rooftop to rooftop, occasionally dropping down onto the cobblestones to fix me in its gaze before ascending again. Its eye looked like an onyx, and an oily prism blazed over its black feathers. My mother, had she seen it, would have told me the Devil was leading me. But she was not there, and she did not see that the bird could just as easily have been following me, as if I were the Devil. I kept walking, and it kept leading, or following, until I turned a corner and it ascended to a rooftop and disappeared.
The theater was built at the end of a narrow alley, lined with sand-colored buildings and pocked with shuttered windows and wrought-iron terraces. For a brief moment, the chatter of pedestrians fell away, and the Grand-Guignol glowed in the dusk. The cobblestones beneath my feet were the same I’d been walking on, but suddenly their unevenness made me aware of every rotation of my hip, every inversion of my foot. I felt like the theater took two steps away from me for every step I took toward it, stretching the space before me to an ever-doubling length.
The crow dove at me from a rooftop, shrieking like a djinn. I ran towards the threshold. The light pouring from the open door throbbed like a bruised thumb.
I had not, precisely, told my mother a lie. The theater had once been a church, though that night the room was hot with spectators instead of congregants, and just as cramped and feverish. The stage was claustrophobic, like a too-hot whisper from an intoxicated stranger. The cherubs that lined the ceiling had a demonic air, an askew quality, and seemed glazed in our collective oils. The smell of bodies was heightened – women’s menstruation and the swampy folds of men. We all breathed in sync and through our mouths. I sat toward the front of the room, pressed between a man who kept glancing at me in confusion and desire, and a couple who gripped each other’s bodies like they were about to be borne away by a flood.
When Maxa came onto the stage, it was as if a window had been opened to allow a breeze and a gale had entered instead. I felt the room bend around her. She was not beautiful in a traditional sense, but her dark eyes beheld all of us as if we were slightly familiar to her. Her mouth was painted the red of clotted blood.
The play concerned a wife who hatched a scheme to murder her husband so that she might live with her lover. Maxa played the strutting spouse with such assurance I forgot I sat shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Parisians; instead, I felt as if I were the play’s maid, overhearing the strategic dialogue staged to divert suspicion. The plan was so nefarious, so meticulously plotted, I was certain I could reproduce it if I cared to. She turned to the audience from time to time, addressing us with scorn, sounding a little disappointed in our prudishness, our lack of imagination. We did not care. We arced toward her voice like petals to the sun.
In the final act, the wife lured her husband to her bedroom, where a large traveling trunk rested open on a length of oiled canvas. This was the plan: to murder him and pack him into the trunk, which she would take with her on a long journey. But before she was able to execute her plan, her husband seized the pistol and shot her dead. He wrapped her in her own canvas and placed her into her own trunk. It was heaved high in the air by an attendant and placed at the edge of the stage. The fiend murmured to himself – ‘She thought of everything’ – and then cackled as he walked offstage. Then, a tremendous bang, as the front of the trunk fell open to reveal her body, twisted in a grotesque knot. The audience let out a collective breath. A woman wept silently in the row before me, and her companion turned to console her.
I waited for the curtain to close on her death, but as I watched her body began to teem with a living curtain of maggots. Someone screamed – it was me, it was me – as her flesh blackened and greened and sank in around her bones like fallen cake. I felt like a girl-child trapped in a nightmare. Some tiny corner of me knew that the effect was done with something real – lights or clay – but could not convince any other part of me that this was anything but the end.
When the performance was over, I sat there picking at my skirt as the audience stood and shrieked and murmured confidences and eventually departed. I did not wish to return home just yet, while the nightmare of the performance lingered so close in my mind, and I felt warm and drowsy. No one came to move me, and I fell asleep there in my seat.
A slam, wreathed in whispering, woke me. The theater was dark as a tomb, aside from a candle burning in my periphery. I reached for my throat, as though I expected it to be wet or gone or bitten, but only felt my own rapid pulse. I turned toward the whispering and saw one of the confessional booths had been closed, and from within there was a gasping sound, like a woman being strangled. I stood and walked to the screen; pressed my face close. Inside, the dark-haired woman was bent over, a man rutting behind her. Her face turned to the side and she saw me, but instead of screaming, she pressed a white finger to the pillow of her mouth.
I turned and fled.
When I came back that night, my mother asked me what the sermon had been about. I went to her and admired her embroidery. ‘The sinful Flesh and the living Word,’ I said. She kissed me on the cheek. Her finger was still bleeding.
When my mother died of her wasting illness a few months later, I left our home – thrown out by the landlord, who’d asked for my body in lieu of rent – and found myself in front of the Grand-Guignol once more. I had some money on my person – enough for a few nights at an inn, a few hot meals – but still I turned some over for a ticket when I saw Maxa on the poster in the street. When I entered the theater, I saw once again the fleur-de-lys wallpaper surrounding me like so many seeds, like I was at the center of a large and pungent fruit – something unfathomably exotic.
That night, Maxa gouged out her right eye with a knitting needle. I don’t remember why; all explanations and plot contrivances were weak beneath the weight of the violence. She dipped her head forward and her hand twitched with new weight. I thought it would be white and smooth as an egg, but when she pulled her hand away it looked like a stillborn chick; a round mass of wet and gristle. I realized after she let it fall to the stage that I’d been holding my breath, and the influx of air was sweet as summer rainfall.
At the end of the performance, I lingered near the stage, which was covered in gore. A young woman came out with a bucket and began to slop brown water along the wood. She looked up and saw me but said nothing. Feeling bold, I hitched my skirts and climbed up, stepping over a menacing streak of red. I could feel her eyes on me as I walked past her.
Backstage, Maxa was sitting on her chair, looking ravished. Her curls were already half undone, as if she’d been out on the water. A book was open in the dip of her skirts, and she was glancing at it with her good eye as she unpinned her hair. ‘Sabine!’ she shouted. In the reflection of her mirror, I looked wide-eyed, feral, faint as a spirit.
‘Sabine, do you –’ she said, and then flicked her gaze toward me. ‘May I help you?’
Behind me, I heard footsteps, and the young woman, Sabine, appeared. She stepped around me and got very close to Maxa’s face. Her fingernail scraped along Maxa’s temple like a cat begging to be fed, and as the black peeled away Maxa’s eyelid emerged beneath it.
‘I’m looking for work, for room and board,’ I said.
‘Running away to the Grand-Guignol?’ she said, her lips twitching slightly upward. ‘This is not a place for children to escape to. Won’t your mother be looking for you?’ The effect seized the hairs on her brow, and she hissed a little. Sabine rolled her eyes, kept picking.
‘I’m not a child,’ I said. ‘And my mother is dead.’
She blinked her eyes hard, the one that had been encased in blood blinking a little more slowly than the other. Then she turned toward me, her whole body leaning from its chair as if she were drunk. Did she recognize me, from that night many months ago? It was unclear. Her eyes were bright, as if with fever. I felt as if all the lights went out, they would glitter like will-o’-the-wisp and lead me into the darkness.
‘Very well, Bess,’ she said.
‘My name is not Bess,’ I said. ‘It’s –’
‘It is now.’ She hiked up her dress and pulled a flask from her garter.
Something – disappointment, maybe – flicked through the muscles of Sabine’s face, but then it went flat, cold. ‘Don’t you have to ask Camille before –’
‘I’ll deal with him,’ said Maxa. She lit a cigarette, stood. ‘If anyone’s looking for me, I’ll be in the alley.’ She tipped her head back and sucked at the flask as if it were a teat, and then stood and drifted into the shadows.
Sabine handed me the mop.
Even when the Grand-Guignol was empty, it was never empty. Fat mice waddled casually along the baseboards, searching for what had rolled out of view. We chased bats out of the theater daily, an explosion of fur and leather. Crows – maybe even my crow – took to sauntering in casually, searching for food or baubles left behind by terrified audience members.
Camille did not seem to understand why Maxa had hired me – though how could he, as I hardly understood it myself – but since I slept in her dressing room in the theater and Maxa fed me, he did not object. His round glasses did not stay on his nose very well; I offered to bend the wire, but he pushed them up nervously and turned away.
Maxa’s vanity was cluttered with what she needed and more: bulbed bottles of scent with sleek lines, a small pair of scissors, mascaras and powders the color of chalk, lipstick and a metal tracer, kohl for her eyes, a hot curler, rouge, a fat brush tipped in pink dust, pencils, old scripts, a pair of bone-colored dice. It seemed like a place where spells were cast; that by scooping up a resident mouse and opening its throat into her wine glass, Maxa might be able to curse whomever she pleased. But there was no need for animal blood; powdered carmine arrived in small sacks – which Sabine told me was created by boiling insects – and I spent my waking hours mixing and reheating the concoction like a vampiress.
At night, before sleep, I stared at the ceiling and thought about my mother; the gap of her, the tenacity of her voice. Every so often someone would come to the theater’s doors, rattle them with a drunken ferocity, and then their footsteps would recede. I understood better than most. I was outside those doors, once, but I never would be again. I could have been out on the streets, hungry and terrified. Here, the questions that seemed to have followed me my entire life did not seem relevant. I was invisible in a way that soothed me. My identity, my inclinations, my desires – it was all open for discussion.
Before my mother’s death, when I performed the duty of pious daughter with rigor, there was a neighbor who often watched me from her window. My mother seemed to think of her as a useful eye – keeping watch on our door when she went to the market – but the woman never seemed to be watching with anything besides curiosity and disgust. Once, when I played jacks on the stoop, she came out and stood at the bottom of the steps with a basket slung on her hip.
‘Where is your father, child?’ she asked.
‘He’s – no longer here,’ I said, for that was what my mother said when ‘dead’ could not reach her lips.
She snorted as though she’d suspected as much.
‘And who does your mother think she’s fooling?’
I caught my ball and looked up at her face, hard with suspicion and even anger. I didn’t know how to answer.
‘We all know who she laid with,’ she said. ‘Look at you.’ Then she shook her head and walked down the street.
A week into my tenure, I woke to find Maxa sprawled over her vanity, moaning into her arms. I stood, alarmed, and when she did not respond I rushed out to the theater, where Sabine was scraping candle wax off the floor.
‘Maxa is ill,’ I gasped, bent over from my pulsing heart.
Sabine stood with no tension, slowly wiping the blade on her skirt as she followed me backstage. She knelt down and looked at Maxa, who had fallen asleep.
‘Wine or opium, Maxa?’ she said loudly. Maxa moaned a little. ‘Both?’ Sabine said. Maxa slid from the dressing table and crawled into my cot. She was asleep before she finished her ascent, and her body went soft while bent over the wooden frame.
‘Come,’ Sabine said. ‘If this is the new arrangement, you should know what needs to be done.’
We stepped into the sunshine and took off down the road. Sabine withdrew a novel from her basket and read as we walked. I could not see the cover, but when I tried to read the words she twitched and turned the book so I could not see. We didn’t speak until we arrived at the pharmacist’s, and Sabine located a blue bottle on the shelf. She shook it a little and held it up to the light.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Recette secrete,’ she said.
‘Just some nonsense, but Maxa gets what she desires.’ She closed the bottle in her fist. Her expression was flat and cross. ‘Maxa watches you,’ she said. ‘She watches you like a cat watches a bird.’
She snorted. ‘Hungrily.’
Back at the theater, Sabine lifted Maxa’s feet up onto the cot and then dragged her torso upright against the wall. She slapped her lightly on the cheek, and Maxa moaned. Sabine handed me the bottle. I poured out the liquid with a trembling hand and lay the spoon against Maxa’s tongue. She bit the metal and swallowed listlessly. Her eyes fluttered open and I felt like I was at the edge of the mouth of a cave, with every intention of jumping in.
After I’d helped Maxa prepare for the night’s performance, I was allowed to sit in the audience, though not to occupy a paying chair. I thought I would become tired or bored of the same rotating sets of plays every night, but I could not stop watching Maxa. She exhibited control over every twitch. She never laughed when she might have laughed, never put a crack in the tension.
Every night, Maxa screamed onstage. Her scream was a magnificent thing, a resonating animal that climbed out of her throat and gamboled around the room. Some nights, if the room was particularly hot, I swore I could see the ribbons of her voice emanating from her. She screamed as she was raped and strangled, disemboweled, stabbed. She screamed as she was consumed by wild cats, shot in the gut, shot in the head (here, accompanied by an uncanny whistling sound, as if the scream was coming through the newly created orifice). She screamed as she was beaten, lit on fire. Audience members would stagger into the street to vomit, and at the end of the night the cobblestone street was studded with glistening puddles.
There were always a few doctors in the audience, sitting at the end of their rows. They were necessary, as fainting audience members were a regular occurrence. Mostly men, which caused a great deal of snickering and speculation among us.
The prevailing theory for this fact was that women were always afraid and covering their eyes, and men watched what they could not – and then found themselves unable to bear it. But Maxa knew the truth, and told me the reason for the fainting. Most men, she said, would only see bodily fluids when they caught their ejaculate in their hands, or if their life ended at the wrong end of a brawl. But for women, gore was a unit of measurement: monthly cycles, the egg-white slip of arousal, the blood of virginity stolen through force of hand or the force of law; childbirth, fists splitting the skin of the skull, the leak of milk, tears.
(I once saw a woman in the street who had been knocked about by a lover, or perhaps a customer. Her eye socket looked crushed; the new shape of her head made my stomach curdle. She was weeping but the salt tears were pink. She wiped them from her filthy face and looked at them on her hand: the color of a rare diamond. ‘Even my tears bleed,’ she said, and staggered down the street.)
‘Men occupy terra firma because they are like stones. Women seep because they occupy the filmy gauze between the world of the living and the dead,’ Maxa said. She was always saying stuff like that. But after watching her perform every night, I began to believe her.
Weeks and months, Maxa died again and again. One of them, in the early spring – death by slicing with a trick razor – was among the most dramatic I’d ever seen. I had watched the rehearsals but could not wait to see the final effect. Louis’s forehead gleamed with sweat beneath the stage lights. He was more scared than Maxa, I realized. But then again, that was easy – Maxa wasn’t afraid at all.
From behind the curtain, I glanced out into the audience. When I squinted, I could see that their collective foreheads were hazy with filth. When the curtains kissed, I glanced out again, and realized that all of their foreheads were crossed with soot – it was mercredi des Cendres.
I watched Louis slash thin lines across Maxa’s breasts, blood seeping down her white slip. She shrieked in pain, her eyes glittering with pleasure. Then he drove the razor into her side. A stream of blood left her, as though he’d punctured a wine cask. The dagger’s blade, I knew, sunk easily into its handle, and the blood I had mixed and warmed myself, but the effect was alarming nonetheless.
When the play ended, the audience went to its feet, and would not stop clapping until Camille told them to leave.
Backstage, Sabine staggered beneath the weight of her water bucket. She came up behind Maxa. The thin metal handle drew a white stripe across her red hand.
‘I want Bess to wash me,’ Maxa said.
Sabine flinched, and then dropped the bucket to the floor. Water sloshed on the wood and drew up what was dried there. I barely heard her receding footsteps.
Maxa slumped into her chair. In her hand she held her removed eye. I knelt before her and took it – a piece of chicken fat bound in twine and dipped in the carmine and glycerine, because the butcher had no beef eyes for us today – and set it wetly upon the vanity. I knew that the dark dip in her face was merely paint, but still when I approached it with a damp rag I felt something sour swell up inside me.
Maxa lifted her legs and balanced the balls of her feet on another chair. The fake blood had left dark lines down her body.
I rubbed the cleft behind her knee, not wanting to pull on the hair. She watched me, her lips pursed a little as if she wanted to moan but needed to stop herself. My rag felt like a living thing, a snake warmed by sunlight.
‘My uncle was a garlic farmer,’ Maxa said, closing her eyes. ‘Hardneck garlic. Have you had it?’
‘No,’ I said, wringing out the rag in the bucket.
‘It’s wild and peppery – the best you can have. My parents sent me there one summer when they were worried the city was too wild for me. I would sit in the field and listen to the garlic grow. It sounded like a chorus of insects. I could hear a crackling, like onion skin. The air was green and sharp. They – they had such soft voices.’
Though outside the audience was talking, laughing, their voices were muted, as if the room were a womb.
‘My uncle would harvest them and dry them braided together and hang them in bundles from the ceiling. The roots were like little hairs and the bulbs were purple as a man’s eggs.’ She laughed a little. ‘My uncle would scold me, but sometimes I’d pull a clove and eat it raw. It tasted like –’ Her mouth parted, in memory, and in her mouth her tongue glistened like an oyster. ‘It tasted like a spell. When I got back, my father said I looked changed, and I think I was. I think the garlic tipped something in me. Kindling for a fire a long time coming.’
‘Where is your father?’ I asked.
Maxa opened her eyes, and her leg twitched beyond my grasp. She ran her hand along her thigh and stared at the pinkish water on her fingertips.
‘Where is your father?’ she replied.
I did not know what to say. She leaned down and took my chin in her hand.
‘What was he? Maghrebin? Your skin is gold in this light.’
I flinched. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. Maxa looked at my face like she wanted to bite it. Instead, she stood and examined herself. She seemed pleased. She walked behind me and gripped my shoulders in her powerful hands, and I felt blood rushing into the muscles that had been like stone. She worked her way around my flesh as if it were a spirit board and her fingers the planchette, drawing answers from my pain. I writhed and twitched beneath her. ‘Thank you,’ I whispered, but she was already turning away.
Maxa’s flat was a few streets over from Grand-Guignol, on the hill, in a rickety tenement at the top of a narrow staircase. She did not answer the door when I knocked, but the knob turned with no resistance.
Somehow, I had imagined a room bathed in light – a kind of temple. But it was closer to a courtesan’s boudoir. At one corner of the room was a beautiful divan, with plush gold and red brocade and a single, sensuous loop of an armrest. The walls were hung with posters from the Grand-Guignol, a daguerreotype of a woman I did not recognize.
The shelf was piled with books, a tiny brass pot, a horsehair brush. An articulated mouse skeleton in a bell jar. Her bed was covered in a fur blanket, on which was draped a massive wolfhound. The dog glanced at me and growled a little, the muscles tensing and releasing in liquid bursts beneath her hide, but Maxa made a barely audible shush and she fell silent, her gaze fixed on Maxa’s form.
‘This is Athéna,’ she said, gesturing to the creature. ‘Hello, my little Bess,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you’re here. I need to eat and bathe.’
When she let her robe drop to the floor, I finally saw the body that I’d only caught glimpses of. Her thighs were round, and the hair between her legs a rusty brown, through which the slit of her sex was visible. Her stomach had a low pooch, like she was early with child, and her breasts were small as apples. Thin white scars clustered near the clefts of her.
I drew a bath for her, and after she lowered her body into the water, I cut her meat pie into chunks and blew on them until they were cool. She wanted no metal, so I fed her by hand. Her mouth was warm and tight. She was careful not to bite but used the edge of her teeth to pull the meat from my fingers.
She let me sleep at her feet, near Athéna. Curled there, I felt the jabs of her toes as she got comfortable, sought pockets of warmth.
In my dreams, she walked down the streets of Paris on a winter night, and I followed behind. Green, waxy scapes pushed from between the fine hairs of her mink coat, and when the wind blew they rustled and, with a creak, reached further out. Her body blotted out the moon. She was an ambulatory garden, a beacon in a dead season, life where life should not grow.
Spring came. One morning, Maxa woke me from my cot by yanking my hair. ‘I need you,’ she said. ‘There’s a car outside.’ As I stood, she undressed me – removing my nightgown and digging around in my trunk for a day dress. I stood shivering, my arms crossed over my breasts. When she’d finished, she unknotted my braid and gathered my hair into a soft chignon at the base of my neck.
In the car, our knees brushed against each other’s, bone knocking against bone.
‘Have you ever had your fortune told, Bess?’ Maxa asked me.
I shook my head.
‘I hadn’t either, until I came to Paris. As a girl I had a doll who was meant to tell little girls’ fortunes. She had a skirt made of slips of paper, and you would ask a question and open her skirts and there would be answers waiting for you. I consulted her daily. Once, I asked her if I was meant to be upon the stage, and when I unfolded the slip it said that I should give up, as evidenced by my doubt. So I shredded her little skirt until there was nothing left.’
I felt a terrible itch at my neck and reached behind to scratch it. My nails dug into the soft give of my skin, and I drew blood. Maxa leaned in and examined my fingers, dipping her own into the gore and examining what she found there.
‘Many years ago, I visited a woman who told me many things that would eventually come to pass. But what happened after those events, she said, was shrouded in mist, and I needed to return to her once I met a mulâtresse.’
The car stopped at Rue Vieille du Temple, and Maxa paid and stepped out into the street. I followed her down the road, where carts stood pitched against buildings, and people of all types stood at low tables covered in fabric.
Maxa did not slow down at their tables; instead, she went to a particular door and knocked. A young girl answered. She tilted her head suspiciously up at Maxa, but Maxa handed her a small green stone, which she examined briefly. She shouted something in a language I did not understand into the house, and from its depths a voice answered back. Maxa pushed past the girl, who pocketed the stone and smiled at me, as if we shared a secret.
The room the girl led us to was dark and narrow, cluttered with bric-a-brac and a small table. The woman who sat at the table was young – perhaps the girl’s mother – and she sat in front of a brass bowl and a glass pitcher filled with water.
‘You’ve come back,’ she said.
Maxa gestured toward me. ‘I want the mist cleared,’ she said. I sat in a chair in the corner of the room. A thin white cat leapt easily into my lap despite her ancient gait and rolled her skull against my breastbone.
The woman looked at me, her expression unreadable. Then she tilted her pitcher toward us and filled the bowl with water. She waited for it to settle, and withdrew a vial from her sleeve. A single drop of oil struck the surface, and after a moment it spread outwards. She cupped her hands around the bowl’s edge and gazed deeply into it.
I looked over at Maxa. Her face had lost its lazy, indolent softness; she was alert, tense, her lower lip pinched beneath her tooth. The woman looked up at me again, and then returned her gaze to the water. ‘You are a conduit for violence, but not a host. It passes through you,’ she said.
‘Is that all?’
‘You will die a violent death.’
I saw Maxa gather the red tablecloth in her hands and feared she would yank the bowl and table over.
‘Maxa,’ I said, ‘she’s just a foolish woman.’
The woman’s eyes snapped at me, and then drifted back down to her bowl.
‘What do you see in there, about my friend?’ Maxa asked.
The woman shook her head. Maxa dug into her glove and removed another franc. The woman slipped it into her purse and gazed back down.
‘On a distant shore, your lover will find you,’ she said. She looked back at me. ‘What are you?’ she asked, but I had no answer.
Back in her flat, Maxa seemed agitated. She spun around, pinching the air as though reaching for something, and finally alighted upon a black box on her vanity. When she opened it, I saw soft spheres resting in between crumpled cloth. She removed one and held it up.
‘A fig,’ she said, ‘all the way from Spain.’ She handed it to me. It was warm and dense and heavy, and a milky drop of nectar clung to the fruit’s opening.
‘Where did you get these?’ I asked.
‘Oh, an admirer left them for me after a show,’ she said. ‘Eat!’
I did not know whether to bite or split, but Maxa bit into hers and I did as well. In the bite, I could see hundreds of tiny seeds, shadowed and clustered like orphans at an open door. I pushed into the opening with my finger, and the fruit clung to me like rugae drawing me in.
‘It’s the flower,’ she said. ‘It’s grown inward, see? It is less beautiful but much sweeter for the effort. I’m told wasps crawl into its depths and die.’
The fruit slid down my throat, but I could not bring myself to take another bite.
I do not know when I first understood that Marcel was Maxa’s lover; she never talked about him. Marcel was a queer figure, always fluttering and talking, the opposite of Maxa’s languid substance. He was mealy and pale and perpetually damp; something one might uncover by inverting a stone in a garden. His hair was his only redeeming feature; long and soft. But I noticed that her chin twitched downward in his presence, and his never did. I did not like how he touched her, as if he owned her from her skin inward; the way he tangled his fingers in her hair and pulled as if drawing on a leash; and pinched her breasts and thighs as though testing her tenderness.
He did not like me either. He called me Maxa’s little Arab, her whore, her vase de nuit. One evening, after the two of them had polished off a bottle of Arrouya noir, he put his cigarette out in my skirts. I yelped and leapt up from the divan, shaking the material so it did not catch on fire. From beneath heavy lids, Maxa watched this performance without comment, even when I looked at her for guidance. Then, she yawned, her tongue black with wine. Only the next day did she take me out to buy me a new skirt and laughed as if we were dearest and oldest friends catching up after an absence.
It was Marcel’s idea to take us both to see La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was brand new, and nearly impossible to attend, but Marcel knew a man who knew a stagehand.
Maxa brought me to her apartment for preparation. The dress she’d found was short, heavy with silver beads, beautiful despite being shapeless. When I reached out to run my fingers through the fringe, Maxa slapped my hand away. ‘Hair first,’ she said, pushing me down in her chair.
Maxa let my hair down and tried to take a brush to it. The brush caught, resisted. She instead ran her fingers through from root to tip, lightly tugging at the snarls and knots. ‘There’s no reason to let it be like this,’ she told me.
In the mirror, my hair made me look indescribably young. I looked away. ‘It’s always been this way,’ I said.
‘We should change that, Bess.’
‘Why do you call me Bess?’ I said.
She lifted my hair up like a curtain and let it drop over my shoulders. I thought she would refuse to answer, but when she spoke her voice curved with a smile.
‘Have you read The Highwayman?’ she asked.
I shook my head.
‘A lover read it to me,’ she said. ‘He brought it from Scotland.’ She fondled the curls that gathered around my ears. ‘A landlord’s daughter falls in love with a brigand, and he is betrayed to soldiers.’
She tugged again, and I yelped at the pain. She rubbed my scalp soothingly and then opened a drawer behind her. With a whisper, she looped a scarf over my wrist, binding it to the arm of the chair.
‘The soldiers come,’ she bound the other arm, ‘and tie Bess – that’s her name, Bess – to her bedpost, and place a musket between her breasts.’ When she lifted the scissors into the air, I struggled against the bonds, but it felt perfunctory. I knew what was going to happen.
‘She knows that they are plotting to kill her lover as soon as he returns, so she finds the trigger of the gun,’ Maxa said. ‘And her finger moved in the moonlight –’
The first cut was crisp and terrible.
‘Her musket shattered the moonlight –’
‘Shattered her breast in the moonlight –’
‘And warned him with her death.’
I hadn’t realized how much my scalp had been aching until so much of me was gone. My hair ended in a jagged horizon at my chin. ‘I look like an urchin,’ I said.
‘I should leave you like this,’ she said to my reflection.
I believed that she would, but then she laughed. ‘I’m not finished.’ She pulled the chair sideways and sat directly across from me, bringing the blade close to my face. Every dry snip sounded like a mouse setting off a trap. Dozens of snips, dozens of mice scuttling to their doom.
‘So she died for her lover,’ I said.
‘He dies for her, too,’ she said. ‘At the end. He’s shot down on the road.’
With the weight lifted, my hair gathered up into the curl I hadn’t seen since I was a girl. She oiled it a little, then brought a hot iron to the ends, curling them under. After, she pasted curls to my forehead with petroleum jelly. ‘Spit curls,’ she said. ‘One for every man you’ve kissed.’
‘I haven’t –’
‘Maxa,’ I said, ‘are you still upset about the fortune teller?’
She shook her head as she dragged her finger down her tongue, sharpening the curl by my ear to a point. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You’re not a mulâtresse. That was my mistake. The reading was similarly in error.’
I stared at the tapestry behind her head – some Eastern cloth tacked to the wall; a tableau of tigers and elephants.
‘What are you?’ she said. ‘Tell me.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What sort of an answer is that? You must know.’
‘My mother was a teacher,’ I said. ‘My father died when I was young.’
A bobby pin scraped my skull and I flinched. Maxa looked slightly deflated, but then she busied herself at her vanity. She lifted up one of her bottles and poured out a spoonful. I opened my mouth obediently, like a child, and the liquid was bitter. I asked her what it was, and she did not reply. The powder puff huffed over my face, and I coughed. I felt a warmth gathering in my belly; the air softened. Maxa had been chewing on fennel seed; her breath was sweet.
‘What country did your mother travel to, to teach the heathens?’
I closed my eyes, as if trying to remember, even though I knew
I did not. ‘A warm place,’ I said. ‘She was sent back after the war.’
‘What do you remember, of the warm place?’
‘Don’t be stupid, Bess. What kind of trees?’
I tried to imagine them, but as soon as one appeared in my mind’s eye I saw my mother, laughing, bending down for me, and I felt my mouth tremble.
‘Oh oh oh now,’ she said. ‘Never mind. Now is not the time. You have to be still.’
I clenched my anus and felt my organs settle in me. She drew on my face and it felt like she was drawing forever, like she was tracing my whole self because I’d faded away. Like I’d become a smooth dome of skin and she needed to put back what had vanished.
She lifted her gilded hand mirror and inverted it before me.
I did not recognize myself. My skin was pale as death, paler even, and the cupid’s bow of my lips pouted unnaturally. My eyes were smudged dark as if I’d been struck twice. I felt old. Not as old as Maxa, nor as old as my mother before the illness took her, but old enough to have seen all of time in its infinite cycles, looping over and over again.
She unbound my arms and tossed the scarves back into a drawer. I lifted them and rubbed at the marks.
The dress Maxa had bought for me was oddly square – the style, yes, but beneath it my body’s elements were subsumed. My new face sat atop a neutered body, soft and sexless as an infant’s. I shivered, and Maxa produced her mink coat. The hairs grazed my skin and I had the uncanny sensation that a living thing was slung over my shoulders, breathing intimately against me.
Marcel came in without knocking, and he bent to the floor to gather the leavings from the haircut. He rasped them between his fingers with an expression of disgust before dropping them to the floor.
Then we were down in the street, and Marcel was opening a door, and a cab whisked us away. The car bobbed and weaved and jolted over the cobblestones like we were small and we were running and
I could not tell if we were the escaping prey or the fox pursuing it.
Years before we arrived there, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had been the site of a terrible riot. I was a young girl but the stories reached my ears anyway: how Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring alongside a ballet performance set in pagan Russia had set the audience to madness. They barked like dogs and climbed on their seats; I even heard that one of them tried to burn the theater to the ground. As we approached the facade, Maxa murmured something to Marcel, and he laughed raucously.
Inside, we took our seats, Maxa between us. The stage grew dark. From the ceiling, a platform descended, and as it landed on the stage I saw a woman, a Negress, sprawled on a bright mirror. When she looked up, I felt like she was staring directly at me. Her hair was slicked tightly against her head and the outline of her body gleamed like light on a river. When she stood, a set of long, pink feathers concealed her breasts and between her legs; she was otherwise nude. The music opened as a shimmer and then went wild; in the same way, the dancer began to jerk and turn as though seized with a fit. She seemed multiplied, three women dancing as one. And as she quaked, she sang. Her voice began low and wide and wooden and then lifted to the ceiling, bright and wire-thin. Between, it warbled as beautifully as any songbird. I felt something light up inside me like a candle knocked against a curtain.
‘The Black Pearl,’ Maxa whispered in my ear. ‘Josephine Baker. They say she has a pet cheetah with a diamond collar.’
Around us, the audience leaned closer with every breath. They had, I thought, the same hunger as the Guignoleurs, though they didn’t know it.
‘Do you ever dream of singing and dancing, Maxa?’ I asked.
The smile that came to her lips faded so quickly it was as if I’d imagined it. ‘I only know how to scream,’ she said. Marcel placed his hand on her thigh. ‘And that’s all anyone wants from me.’
Marcel knew a nightclub and hailed a cab for all of us.
I had never seen so many different people in the same space. Parisians pulsed together, closer than I had ever seen in a street. Marcel vanished, and brought back two fluted glasses.
‘What is this?’ I asked over the music.
‘Just drink it,’ he said, turning away and gesturing to a man who seemed to know him.
‘Le soixante-quinze,’ she said.
‘Why is it called that?’ I asked.
The drink lurched as a man stumbled into my body, and then grasped the fat of my face in his large hand. He leaned in, inches from me. ‘Because it is like being shot with a field gun!’ he howled before Maxa pushed him away. Even as he stumbled into the crowd, I could see his glistening mouth and yellowing teeth; smell his rank breath.
I closed my eyes and drank.
The drink bubbled in my mouth, an unexpected explosion of botanical sweetness. I drained it to the bottom, and Maxa handed me hers and gestured for more. Marcel lifted his own glass toward the jazzmen in the front. When he fumbled beneath Maxa’s skirt,
I looked away.
One young woman, a Negress with high cheekbones, danced with a white girl I’d seen in the Grand-Guignol many times. They held each other close, kissed each other’s wrists, moved as if the room were empty. The familiarity between them made me ache. Maxa followed my gaze.
‘Tomorrow they may pass each other in the street, and it’ll be like they never met,’ she said softly into my ear. ‘That’s always how it goes.’
‘But they have what they want,’ I said. ‘Even just for a night.’
‘Well,’ she said. ‘One of them, at least.’
We returned to the apartment in the earliest hours of the morning. Maxa gave me a glass of sherry, and I stared at it for a moment before crawling onto the divan and falling asleep. I heard her set it down on the nightstand, and the murmur of their voices.
I woke up to the sound of Marcel’s open palm on Maxa’s skin. With every crack, I imagined where his hand was going – her face, her buttocks – and when I turned my face ever so slightly I saw he was hitting glistening cunt. At every beat, she gasped and writhed, and tears leaked to her pillow. I closed my eyes, but the musk of her hung in the air and I could not make myself leave the room, even in sleep.
On a warm evening in May, Maxa invited me to take a walk with her. We drifted away from St Georges, down past the Théâtre Mogador. She held my arm with an uncanny intimacy, as if we had been friends since childhood.
‘I have seen you write,’ she said. ‘Have you ever considered writing a play?’
‘I’ve never written a play,’ I said. ‘I enjoy your performances, but
I don’t know if I could write anything that could rise to them.’
‘It isn’t about that,’ she said. ‘It’s a pairing of power, not a transfer of it. The actress and the authoress meet in the middle.’
I picked up my skirts to avoid a pile of horseshit.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I like that you still wear this old-fashioned thing. I bet you still wear a corset, too.’ I flushed.
‘I only wear it because I can’t afford anything new,’ I said. She pulled me around another pile of dung, and when I was clear of it – but could still hear the buzzing of flies – she did not remove her hand but ran it along the line of my shoulder. I shuddered with the familiarity of the gesture.
Then we were at the Seine, past the Champs-Élysées, and
I blinked at the river which had come up so suddenly. It flowed with an aggressive swiftness, and I suspected that if there’d been light in the sky, the motion would have made me dizzy.
‘Have you ever noticed how the buildings become less crowded as you get closer to the water?’ Maxa asked me. ‘It’s like the teeth of a young girl as she ages into an old woman. One day she has too many, and eventually she will have too few; a mouth of glistening gums.’
We began to walk over a bridge. Maxa turned to look out to the water. I did as well. The river unspooled before us like a line of spilled ink making its way across a table. Along the shore we saw something moving in the shadows.
‘When I was a girl,’ she said, ‘a mad dog bit the neighbor’s child. The dog was shot dead, but the girl became ill. My mother and I went to visit her, and in her bed she saw me and began to scream. She howled and kicked and acted mad herself, as if she would have rather torn through the walls with her bare hands than be in the room for one more moment with me.’
She fell silent, and I worried a chip of stone that had been resting on the railing. She did not say anything else, and after a few minutes we continued walking.
When we reached the nymphs at the center of the bridge, Maxa turned my body toward her. She bent my torso backwards over the cold stone and wrapped her hand lazily around my throat, like a sleepy man clutching his member to piss. Behind me, the black river was a starless sky, and the sky a star-filled river, and she pulled up my skirt and stroked my sex with her fingers. I hung there like a strung-up game bird, blood vacillating between my legs and my head, until I felt a swell like the air before a storm. My abdomen spasmed, and the more I trembled the more firm her grip became, and somewhere in the space between darkness and darkness my cells expanded outward and I bore down against her hand as if my muscle wished to vacate my skin.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you, thank you.’
She pulled me upright and drew my shaking body against her breast. Then she kissed me as if extracting snake venom from
Back in her room, she removed her stockings and pulled her skirt to her waist. I went to her with my mouth, but she pulled my face toward hers and slipped my fingers inside. She circluded my fingers, all muscle and fold, drew me in, and I moaned into her collarbone. It felt like I was pushing into a closed fist.
‘Write me a play, Bess,’ she said, panting and pushing against me. ‘Write the filthiest, foulest, most tremendous play, and we will put it on.’
That night, I dreamt that I was spread-eagle on a ceramic platter larger than my body, glossy and white as the moon. In the sky, a blazing star grew larger and larger, coming toward both of us. Maxa sat down before me, and began to swallow me like a python, and I was gripped by the muscle of her until she’d taken me in entirely. The air grew white and hot and even as we were unmade, I was coming. When I woke up, nude and draped at Maxa’s feet, I knew the play that had to be written.
‘It’s ready,’ I said to her the first day in September. Around us, the cast gathered for rehearsal. Maxa took my face in her hand and kissed me, long and slow.
‘Wonderful,’ she said, her mouth twisting up into a smile. ‘I crave the experience of reading it next to you. Wait for me after tonight’s performance, and we will read it together.’
That night, I let myself in and sat on her bed, the play resting on my lap. The show had recently ended, and when enough time had passed for Maxa to change, I expected to hear her footsteps on the stairs, but there was nothing. Athéna chewed on a cow’s bone in the corner, but after a while she ambled up to the bed and laid her silky head on my lap, on top of the pages. As the hours wore on, my back became stiff, and I drifted into shallow half-dreams until my wilting body woke me with a jerk.
Well past midnight, I heard voices on the stairs; Maxa’s sotto, Marcel’s reedy as a girl’s. When the door opened, I saw Maxa’s surprise soften into remembrance. They were both drunk; a haze of anise surrounded them. Athéna growled lightly at Marcel.
‘Your little dog is here,’ he slurred at her, and I realized he did not mean Athéna. He walked up to me and grabbed my knee through my skirts. ‘Will you service us both? Or are you as useless a hole as you are an attendant?’
‘Marcel,’ Maxa said. He turned and grabbed her wrist.
‘What, my love?’ he sang, his voice shot through with threat. Athéna barked, a ridge of fur raised along the back of her neck.
She twitched and twisted her arm away but said nothing else. Marcel looked at me again, and while arousal was in there, somewhere, it was mostly anger. He kissed Maxa gently on the cheek. She did not look at him.
‘Goodnight, my queen,’ he said, and left.
Maxa stood there in the darkness of the room. I could not see her face. I thought of a doll I’d had as a child, a faceless doll my mother told me had come from my grandmother. A young girl who lived nearby drew a face on my doll in charcoal, and after that I would not touch her.
‘Bess,’ Maxa said finally. I stood there, the pages tight in my arms. She tried to take them; after pulling hard, I relented. She sat on the bed and flipped through them, reading with the kind of sustained focus I normally only saw on the stage. When she arrived at the climax, her eyes glittered. ‘Oh Bess,’ she said. ‘Bess, my Bess.’
I got down on my knees, but she drew me up and laid me on the bed. ‘I am so sorry,’ she said, stroking my hair. ‘I am sorry for Marcel. He’s a slug and a bore, and you’re like lightning that turns sand to glass.’ She rubbed her thumb over my pulse.
‘Why do you stay with him?’ I asked.
‘You’re so young, Bess.’ She lifted my skirt with a rustle and leaned her mouth into my ear. ‘You simply don’t understand. The world is terrifying for women. For us.’
She began to massage my sex with her thumb, and when my body acquiesced she slipped inside. Her thrusts were saturated with need, as if her hand was a cock. I whimpered and felt myself curl around her, and she sealed her free palm over my face. ‘Bess, Bess, my little Bess,’ she whispered. ‘Do you want to go to Greece with me?’ Her hand did not move from my mouth. ‘We could leave this theater and take a train to Thessaloniki. We can tell people we’re cousins and no one will pry. We can have goats and sheep and plant garlic and we’ll never have to labor outside our own walls.’
I felt pleasure from far away, like a horse cresting the horizon. The door to her flat rattled loudly, and Marcel’s slurred voice drifted in from behind it.
‘Maxa,’ he said. ‘Maxa, come with me.’
My back arched, and she pressed her hand against my mouth. The sound that had nearly escaped moved back and forth between my cunt and my head, with no release.
‘I come to you, my king,’ she chirruped bright as a bird, and then whispered in my ear, ‘I will check the train schedule, I promise.’ She slipped her hand out of me, whisked her coat around her body, and was gone.
When the door shut, the sound that had been staggering through my body came out in a ragged sob. The candle on the table guttered, even though there was no wind.
The troupe gathered to read the play together, and when it was over a pall of silence descended onto the room.
‘This play is profane, even for us,’ Sabine said. ‘The police will come.’
Camille looked helplessly at Maxa, but she was smiling at me.
‘Don’t be afraid, loves,’ she said. ‘This is going to be the best show we’ve ever performed.’
The night of my play’s debut, I arrived at the theater early, only to find Maxa and Marcel drinking on my old cot.
Maxa’s eyes glittered. ‘I’ve had an idea, Bess,’ she said. She lifted up a cigar box and opened it; inside were lines of francs.
‘Maxa,’ I breathed.
She sent me down into the house to place the bills on the seats. I did, and when I had leftovers I turned and showed them to her. She made a scattering motion, so I swung around and released the bills everywhere. When I had rid myself of every scrap, I returned to the stage and to the peephole where Maxa stood.
The audience began to enter. The Guignoleurs moved with swiftness, and others flinched and rolled their eyes upward, taking it all in. Then, a woman in a beaded dress noticed a franc on her chair and lifted it to her eyes. She turned to her companions, who were laughing. ‘It’s real!’ she said. ‘It’s real!’
Her musical voice ran through the crowd like a swift illness. Others began to echo her, unthinkingly at first, and then it took as they saw the paper scattered at their feet.
‘Let me see,’ said Maxa.
Marcel, Maxa and I stood there, taking turns at the peephole. Maxa laughed wickedly, and when Marcel looked I saw his muscles tense, like a cat about to pounce.
‘Please,’ I said, and pressed my eye socket to the peephole.
In the audience, the patrons tore at each other. The ladies abandoned their hats and handbags, crawled over each other, their skirts riding up. The men punched each other in the jaw, cracked chairbacks against skulls. They did not look human, but rather like a group of feral cats I had once seen swarm over a horse who had fallen in the street; liquid and animal.
Maxa’s breath was hot in my ear, and I felt her pressing against me. It was only when the pressing became rhythmic that I realized that Marcel was behind us both, and Maxa’s skirt was drawn up to her hips. My breath quickened, and I braced myself against the wall, so that I might slip away. Maxa grabbed my wrist.
‘Please don’t leave me,’ she begged into my ear. ‘Please don’t.’
A woman who had been rummaging about on the floor sat up, a fistful of francs in her hand like a wedding bouquet. But instead of pocketing it, she threw it back above the crowd, refreshing the chaos. I heard Marcel make his groan of culmination, and then he was gone, disappeared into the back of the theater. I turned around and saw Maxa there, looking disheveled. Sabine came running up to us – ‘Maxa, you need to change!’ – and then I went and sat in the audience.
And so the play began.
I had, as Maxa commanded, written the most degenerate play I could have imagined.
Jean walked to the center of the stage. ‘I am your host for the evening. Tonight, we will not be showing The Blind Ship. Instead, we have the debut performance of a new play, by a playwright brand new to our stage. A virgin, if you will. The play is called The Star.’
The audience tittered. Jean lifted his arm and walked to the edge of the stage, bowing as he did so.
‘The village of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin,’ he announced, ‘at the end of the world.’
When the curtain rose, Maxa was standing atop a swelling slope, a falcon on her arm. Behind her, a servant lifted bits of bloody meat to the falcon’s beak, which the falcon seized with a quickness. Beneath the stage, attendants used water and mirrors to send soft and glittering orbits into the room, as though she stood on the ocean’s shore. She smiled. Her lip curved like a hooked finger drawing a viewer into a room.
‘It is the end of the world,’ she said. ‘See, the comet in the sky. It tears down toward us, threatening. I am the last queen that reigns over man.’
Jean dropped to his knee. ‘I would do anything for you, my queen.’
‘A comet in the sky,’ Maxa repeated again. ‘I thought it was the moon, but it is coming to end us. It bears down on us like a disapproving eye. It reveals truths and dispels illusions. It causes us to remember what we never knew we forgot. It causes us to forget what we never knew. We are small, we are small. Mankind’s theater is wasted on our smallness.’
We arrived at the part of the play where the dialogue and stage direction ceased. The actors were instructed to turn to the audience.
‘What do we do with our final queen?’ they said, in unison.
There was silence among the audience. I waited for five breaths before opening my mouth to command: ‘Worship her.’ I imagined an orgy of bodies. Indeed, even Jean was unbuttoning his cuffs, preparing for the audience’s lust.
But in the same instant, a deep voice bellowed from the crowd, swallowing my own. ‘Strike her down.’ There was a beat of silence, and the actors did not respond.
Another voice, higher this time. A woman’s. ‘Subdue her.’
‘My people,’ Jean said, rolling up his sleeves. ‘The comet arrives. The end of the world is nigh. Perhaps . . .’ He flicked the edge of Maxa’s breast suggestively. Beneath the fabric, her nipple hardened to a pebble, but she did not move. She continued to stare at the audience, impassive, her face slack as dough.
‘Beat her,’ said another man.
Jean looked at me, but I did not know how to intervene. My play felt alive, less created than born, and I had no more control over it than any being.
The first blow was soft, like a parent wishing to frighten a child instead of hurt them. Maxa barely moved; the hand seemed to sink into her. Jean turned back to the audience, a troubled expression moving across his face like clouds before the moon.
‘And now that she is softened,’ he began, ‘perhaps we –’
‘Again,’ said a young woman, who barely looked old enough to be in the audience.
Jean looked at his hand as if he did not recognize it; as if it was some creature that had climbed onto his limb for a ride. He struck Maxa again but did not look at her.
Now the audience was silent, but the command rose from them like a collective thought. Their white faces bobbed in the blackness like so many corpses in the river. Jean hit her again, and again. As she fell, the falcon took off from her arm and swooped toward the woman with the scraps of meat. She shrieked and tossed them to the ground; the bird landed and swallowed them one after the other.
Jean grabbed Maxa’s hair and lifted her to her feet.
The fifth time he struck her, a woman stood up in the audience. ‘Stop!’ she screamed. Around her, a few glazed eyes turned upward. She grabbed the jacket of her escort, a dewy young man who looked at her as though she was making an observation about the weather. ‘Stop,’ she cried again, and stumbled over the legs of audience members so that she might make her way to the aisle. ‘He’s hurting her, he’s truly hurting her!’ she said, pushing over the bodies in her way. ‘Make him stop!’
Jean struck Maxa again, so hard I heard a crack and she collapsed to the stage for a final time. The woman kept pushing her way through the audience, and in one swift motion a group of men stood and bore her body aloft. She shrieked in fear, and once again cried ‘Stop, stop, he’s hurting her!’ and the men passed her back, and men and women alike pushed her into the air, her body contorting like a puppet, and they passed her around, pulling the clothing from her like the skin from an orange. Segment by segment, her garments fluttered to the floor. Her body was white as pith.
She began to scream anew – no longer for Maxa, but for herself. The actors stood there, waiting out the stage direction that had so delighted Maxa: When worked into a frenzy, let the audience play out their desire until their exhaustion and natural submission.
Then the crowd opened up like an orifice and drew the woman into itself, and she sank as if in quicksand. There was a sound; a slurping, a yawn, as if she had entered into a giant mouth. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the audience returned to their seats. The woman was nowhere to be found.
Jean’s eyes were soft and wet as rose petals. He staggered past his cue. ‘It comes,’ he said, though what was coming he did not say. ‘It comes.’
The effect of the comet striking the earth was twofold: light and sound. When the stage cleared, the actors had dropped down flat, and the falcon continued to eat, a hard eye turned to them all. Of course they should have been nude, having fallen directly from whatever sexual position they’d been imitating. But instead they dropped from violence to death with nothing in between.
The audience sat there, as in a trance. Then, they began to clap, and clap, and they stood. Cloth from the woman’s dress was strewn over the seats and their arms, and they clapped and clapped and clapped. It was only the lights coming up that stopped them from clapping unto blood.
Camille met me backstage. ‘We will switch back to The Blind Ship tomorrow,’ he said. He pushed a pile of scripts into my hands.
When the audience had departed, I walked up the sides of the aisles, looking for the woman. I saw white scraps of dress, but no naked, crawling thing, not even a corpse. I walked the perimeter of the theater, but she was simply gone.
Many years later, when Paris was a distant memory, I asked myself if I had known that the audience would not encourage the actors to descend into an orgy, but would instead demand Maxa be taken apart before them? That only the intervention of a woman in the audience, a stranger who then lost her life at their hands, had prevented such a thing? I did not know.
When I arrived at Maxa’s flat that night, I found Athéna looping around the street, whining piteously.
I ran up the steps to the flat and leaned my ear against the door. Marcel’s reedy voice floated toward me. ‘I love you, my demon, my sweet,’ he said. I heard the sound of leather on skin, but was not certain if it rang with rage or pleasure. The cracking sound ended with the faintest of chimes – metal. I began to throw myself against the door.
‘Bess,’ Maxa screamed from inside. ‘Bess, help me, help me please, God help me.’
As the door gave beneath my shoulder, the belt buckle struck the side of my face. I spun blindly and pinned Marcel to the wall, yanking the belt from his hand. I struck his groin, and he crumpled.
‘Get out of here,’ I said. He stood and ran.
I closed the door and turned back. Maxa was sprawled on the divan, weeping. Her dress was torn, and welts bubbled on her skin as if she’d been burned. I wetted a cloth with water and brought it to her.
‘Oh Bess,’ Maxa said, clutching tearily at my skirts. ‘He was mad, he was mad. I did this, I lit some wicked fire in him. He wished to purge my sins –’
‘You’ll be all right,’ I said, dabbing at the welts.
‘I lit some fire in you, too. I created you, turned you into a monster.’
I lifted the cloth and let it drip onto the floor. Maxa gathered herself from her weeping and stared at me as if she did not recognize me.
‘I am not a monster,’ I said, ‘and you did not create me.’ I confess here that my voice wavered a little, for I thought of my mother, and for the first time in a year longed to hear my name, my true name, in her voice.
Maxa laid her head against my stomach as if she were an exhausted child. I stroked her hair. ‘You love me, don’t you, Bess?’ she asked. She looked, the goldfish of her mouth trembling. She smelled like le fruit défendu, like overripe apricots fallen to the earth, bitter smoke. I held her face in my hands; it was lovely and cold. ‘I must go,’ I said, and she did not stop me.
I opened the door, and before I left whistled for Athéna, who loped up the stairs and went straight to her mistress.
The next morning, Maxa was gone. No one at the theater knew where she was, though she’d left a note, and Sabine was preparing to fill in. Marcel, they told me, had been arrested in the night for his drunkenness – he’d assaulted a woman outside a hotel after he’d left Maxa’s flat. An officer lingered in the doorway, after having made inquiries about a disturbance, and a young woman who had not returned to her dormitory.
‘What kind of theater is this, exactly?’ he asked, squinting nearsightedly at the poster on the wall.
‘We perform religious plays,’ I said breathlessly. ‘Excuse me.’
When I arrived at Maxa’s apartment, I found it full of her possessions and empty of life. It was only when I asked her landlord that he procured a piece of paper with her thick, cramped handwriting – a forwarding address in Rouen, and several months’ rent. I caught the next train.
When I arrived, I hired a driver. A steady rain obscured the details of the landscape except for the turning of the wheels, and the road unfolding behind us.
It seemed like an age that I stood at Maxa’s door, my wet hair wrapped around my throat like a noose. The yard was quiet as a cemetery. Beneath a willow tree, loose soil bulged with new death. A shadow slipped across the window, and I knocked. She did not answer. I threw myself against the entrance, but slipped and fell into the mud. I stood and lifted a stone, intending to break the lock, and the door opened. I saw a single, liquid eye. She opened the door further and took me in. She looked at me as if she’d never seen me before. I pushed past her and into the warm little villa.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked me. She looked frailer than I remembered her, wrapped in a blood-red kimono lined with blue and gold cranes. She turned toward her window, and then her eyes seemed to land upon the grave in her yard. ‘Athéna died. Her back legs went soft and she shit herself and then she left me in the middle of the night. Sickness follows me wherever I go.’
My jittering fingertips missed the buttons before they found them. I undressed before her and pressed her hands against my gooseflesh.
I thought they would be warm, but they were cold, even colder than me.
‘Strike me,’ I said.
She stared at me as if I were mad.
‘No,’ she said.
I grabbed her hands and placed them around my throat. When
I released them, they fell limply to her sides. Water dripped down
‘You asked me if I loved you.’
‘I don’t need you to tell me you love me,’ I said, ‘but you do need to tell me that I will not be limping after you for our entire lives. That my humiliation is not your only pleasure. I don’t want your performance or your persona. I just need to know that you need me, or some part of me.’
Her eyes filled with actress’s tears, and when my face did not soften, they sharpened into real anger. ‘Need you for what,’ she said flatly. ‘I’m not an invert.’
The slap I delivered to her cheek was not hard, but she crumpled to the floor like a kicked animal anyway. There, I heard a high, keening sound, and I realized that she was weeping. I had never heard her truly cry before. She clawed listlessly at the wooden floor, as if it were earth and she could bury herself there. I pulled up my dress. She stayed on the floor, curled into herself. I would never see her stand again.
‘I’ll find you, Bess,’ she said. ‘On the distant shore, remember? I will find you, when I can be better than I am.’
‘My name is not Bess,’ I said, leaning down to her. ‘And you will never know what it really is.’
As I walked back to the train station, the rain began to dissipate, and the clouds faded like breath dissolving into the winter air. When I arrived at the station, the bustle of it was strangely muted. I looked up into the sky. A bright new star glittered next to the waning moon, and the people on the platform pointed to it in wonder; faces all turned equally toward this new sight.
Watching the countryside flit past the fixed window, I remembered something I hadn’t thought about in a long time: the first time I saw Maxa, decomposing on that stage. How she had let herself dissolve away.
I drifted west, to London, where I worked as a seamstress like my mother had and spent what little discretionary money I had on the movies.
I loved silent films – perhaps because of the dark eyes and expressive
faces of the actresses, which commanded with so little effort – but when sound arrived I felt a fluttering moth of excitement. The world was advancing forward, in its own way. I did not know then, sitting there in the darkness, that under the dialogue I was hearing the death knells of the Grand-Guignol from across la Manche, one pleasure traded for another.
Then the war came – men doing what men did. When it was over, and the newspapers were filled with humankind’s unspeakable horrors, the Grand-Guignol no longer had anything new to show us.
I emigrated to the United States a few years before Hitler’s occupation of Paris. My life settled into some manner of routine. Montmartre was in my past and would remain there.
One afternoon, a letter arrived for me from Algeria: my aunt, searching for me.
‘I have sent a dozen letters after you,’ she wrote. ‘Many years have passed since we have laid eyes on each other. It was terrible to lose you, beloved creature; I hope to find you soon.’
The letter was soft from its travels and, when I placed it against my nose, smelled like incense. My mother had dabbed an oil onto her wrists when she was alive; at night, always after I’d gone to bed, though it lingered on her in the morning. It smelled like this, like a fire in a cedar grove. I had not smelled it in so many years. My body seized up with distant grief, and that was how my lover found me – sitting in an armchair and clutching the letter to my breastbone, spasming with anguish. She brought me a pen and the stationery with my name embossed at the top. ‘Write back,’ she said.
The next afternoon, as I carried my letter to the post office, I felt something on my neck – the sensation of Maxa’s gaze. Though she was decades past, I flinched and reached up to smooth the hairs that had prickled there. I turned. It was a bright, matte day. The sky was the color of strangulation; the streets glittered like crushed glass. Beneath them, New York’s creatures teemed and strutted like they’d all been loosed from their circus.
Then I saw her face, looming up from the cover of a magazine. The vendor who was selling it smiled toothily when I handed over my money.
At home, I spread the magazine open on the table. i am the maddest woman in the world, the headline read, and what followed was a first-person account of what Maxa perceived to be her life. I read that she had returned to Paris after her time in the country, and of the series of doomed love affairs she’d carried on then. One man, a Parisian businessman, had made her line the walls of her flat with black velvet. I pictured her on the bed, curled up there, like a tiny brooch at the bottom of a jewelry box. She had, it seemed, returned to the Grand-Guignol for a final performance, in which she screamed so loudly she ravaged her voice, and could now do nothing but whisper. The article did not mention me, except for a single reference to the ‘degenerate women’ she had power over.
My lover read the article over my shoulder, her breasts grazing my back. She did not speak as I flipped the pages, only huffed a little through her nose when she arrived at certain lines. When I was finished and set the magazine down on the table, she said, ‘Come, my little degenerate, let’s go for a walk.’
When I didn’t move, she slid her fingernails along my scalp and gripped my hair at its base. When she gently pulled my head back, she delivered a kiss to the naked arc of my throat. I felt a spasm of joy.
‘Now, Aisha,’ she said into my skin, her voice acid and sweet, and my skull vibrated with my name. I stood and followed her into the street.