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.