This is not my body.
Yes, there are the expected parts—arms, legs, hips, breasts—each in its proper place and of the proper shape.
Is he a monster, a madman, a misguided fool? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. But this is not my body.
The rot begins, as always, around the stitches. This time, the spots of greyish-green appear on the left wrist, and there is an accompanying ache, but not in the expected way. It feels as though there is a great disconnect between mind and flesh, a gap that yearns to close but cannot. I say nothing, but there is no need; Lillian’s weeping says it with more truth than words.
The hands are hers.
“Please don’t show him yet. Please,” she whispers. “I’m not ready.”
“I must,” I say. “You will be fine.”
“Please, please, wait until after the party.”
I ignore her. I have learned the hard way that hiding the rot is not acceptable, and while the flesh may be hers, the pain is mine and mine alone. I remember hearing him offer an explanation, but the words, the theories, were too complex for me to understand. I suspect that was his intention.
Lillian will still be with us; she is simply grasping for an excuse, any excuse at all. I understand her fear, but the rot could destroy us all.
My stride is long. Graceful. Therese was a dancer, and she taught me the carriage of a lady. I pass old Ilsa in the hallway, and she offers a distracted nod over the mound of bed linens she carries. All the servants are busy with preparations for the upcoming annual party, which I’m not allowed to attend, of course.
I wonder what sort of fiction he has spun to the servants. Am I an ill cousin, perhaps, or someone’s cast-off bastard that he has taken in? Either way, I’m certain they call him the good doctor, but they’re not here at night. They don’t know everything.
They never speak to me, nor do they offer anything more than nods or waves of the hand, and none of them can see my face through the veil I must wear when I venture beyond my rooms. All my gowns have high necklines and long, flowing sleeves; not a trace of flesh is exposed.
For my safety, he says. They will not understand. They will be afraid and people in fear often act in a violent manner. His mouth never says what sort of violence he expects, but his eyes do.
When I knock on the half-open door to his study, he glances up from his notebooks. I shut the door behind me, approach his desk slowly, and hold out Lillian’s hand.
“Oh, Victoria,” he says, shaking his head. “I had hoped we were past this. This configuration is as close to perfect as I could hope.”
I bite my tongue. Victoria is not my name, simply a construct.
I asked him once why he had done such a thing; he called me an ungrateful wretch and left his handprint on my cheek. I wonder if he even knows why. Perhaps the answer is so ugly he has buried it deep inside.
Without another word, he leads me to the small operating theater, unlocks the door, and steps aside to let me enter first. The room smells of antiseptic and gauze, but it’s far better than the wet flesh reek of the large theater. My visual memories are vague, but the smell will not leave, no matter how hard I try to forget.
I sit on the edge of the examination table without prompting. His face is grim, studied, as he inspects the wrist, and even though his touch is gentle, I watch his eyes for signs of anger. I know the rot is not my fault, but innocence is no guard against rage.
He makes a sound deep in his throat. Of sorrow? Condemnation?
Lillian weeps, then begs, then prays. None of which will make any difference.
The rot binds us to him as the stitches bind them to me. A prison, not of bars, but circumstance. I have entertained thoughts of the scissors and the thread, the undoing to set us free, but I have no wish to die again, and neither do the others. While not perfect, this existence is preferable. And what if we did not die? What if our pieces remained alive and sentient? A crueler fate I cannot imagine.
He scrapes a bit of the rot away, revealing a darker patch beneath. When he lets out a heavy sigh, I note the absence of liquor on his breath.
He busies himself with the necessary preparations, and Lillian begins to cry again. The others remain silent. He paints the wrist with an anesthetic, which surprises me. My tears have never stopped him from his work. I close my eyes and feel pressure. Hear the blades snipping through the stitches. Smell the foul scent of decay as it reaches out from beneath.
He places the hand in a small metal tray, then coats the remaining flesh in an ointment that smells strongly of pine and wraps it in gauze.
“We shall know in a few days.”
Diana’s worry is as strong as mine. Lillian tries to speak but cannot force the words through her sorrow and fear.
When the anesthetic wears off, the skin gives a steady thump of pain from beneath the gauze and I do my best to ignore it.
“At least it was only the one,” Grace says.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Lillian snaps.
“What if it spreads?” Diana asks.
Molly mutters something I cannot decipher, but it makes Lillian weep again.
“Hush,” says Therese. “Remember Emily? She had reason to weep. You do not.”
Sophie laughs. The sound is cruel. Hard.
“Stop, please, all of you,” I finally say. “I need to sleep. To heal.”
Heal is not the right term, perhaps remain would be better.
“I’m sorry, Kimberly,” Lillian says softly.
The sound of my real name hurts, but not as much as the false one. At least Kimberly is, was, real.
The rest apologize as well, even Sophie, and fall silent. I toss and turn beneath the blankets and eventually slip from my bed. The others say nothing when I open the small door hidden behind a tapestry on the wall. The passageway is narrow and dusty and spiders scurry out of my way, and it travels around the east wing of the house—the only part of the house where I’m allowed—then leads to the central part, the main house. There are small covered holes here and there that open to various rooms, to carpets my feet will never touch and sofas I will never recline upon. The passageway also goes to the west wing of the house, but the rooms are unused and the furniture nothing more than cloth covered shapes in the darkness. The only doors I have found lead to bedrooms—mine, his, and one other designed for guests, although we never have guests stay—and one near the music room.
There is, as always, a race in the heartbeat, a dryness to the mouth, when I creep from the passage and make my way to the servants’ entrance. The air outside is cold enough to take my breath away as I follow the narrow path that leads to the gate in the outer wall. There is another path that leads down the hill and into the town, but the gate is locked.
I pretend that one day I will walk through the gate and down that path. Leave this house behind; leave him behind for good. But if I ran away and the rot returned, who would fix me? The rot would not stop until it consumed me whole.
I know this for truth because he left it alone the first time to see what would happen, and the rot crept its way up until he had no choice but to remove the entire arm. Her name was Rachael, and he removed both arms so he could then attach a matching set.
Most of the windows in the town are dark. The church’s steeple rises high, a glint of moonlight on the spire. I have heard the servants talk about the market, the church. Beyond the town, there is a road that winds around a bend and disappears from sight.
My parents’ farm is half a day’s travel from the town by horse and carriage. It would be a long, difficult walk but not impossible.
I wonder if Peter, my eldest brother, has asked for Ginny’s hand in marriage yet. I wonder if Tom, younger than I by ten months, has stopped growing (when I fell ill, he already towered over all of us). I wonder if my mother still sings as she churns butter. And my father…the last thing I remember are the tears in his eyes. I hope he has found a way to smile again; I wish I could see them all once more, even if only from a distance.
I wait for someone to speak, to mention escape and freedom, but they remain silent. After a time, I return to my bed and press my hand to Molly’s chest. The heart belongs to someone else, someone not us. Sometimes I think I feel her presence, like a ghostly spirit in an old house, but she never speaks. Perhaps there is not enough of her here to have a voice. Perhaps she simply refuses to speak.
I wish I knew her name.
Although the stump shows no more signs of rot, he doesn’t replace Lillian’s hand. It makes dressing difficult at best, but I manage.
After supper, when all the servants have gone, I join him in the music room. I sing the songs he has taught me. Melodies which were strange and awkward at first now flow with ease; foreign words that fumbled on my tongue now taste of familiarity.
He accompanies me on the piano he says belonged to his mother. Only two songs tonight, and after the second, he waves his hand in dismissal, and I notice the red in his eyes and the tremble in his fingers. Perhaps he is worried about the party.
When he comes to my room in the middle of the night, I hide my surprise. He usually doesn’t touch me unless I’m whole, but by now I know what is expected, so I raise my chemise and part Therese’s legs. When he kisses my neck, I pretend it belongs to someone else. Anyone else. The others whisper to me of nonsense as a distraction. Thankfully, he doesn’t take long.
After he leaves, I use Lillian’s finger to trace the stitches. They divide us into sections like countries on a map. The head, neck, and shoulders are mine; the upper torso, Molly’s; the lower torso, Grace’s; Diana, the arms; Lillian, the hand; Therese, the legs and feet; Sophie, the scalp and hair.
I make all the pieces of this puzzle move, I feel touches or insult upon them, but they never feel as if they belong completely to me. He may know how everything works on the outside, but he doesn’t know that they are here with me on the inside, too. We plan to keep it this way.
Once a week, in the small operating theater, he has me strip and he inspects all the stitches, all the parts. He checks my heart and listens to me breathe. I hate the feel of his eyes upon me; it’s far worse than enduring his weight in my bed.
Not long after he brought me back, I tried to stab myself with a knife. At the last moment, I held back and only opened a small wound above the left breast. Stitches hold it closed now.
He says the mind of all things, from the smallest insect to the largest animal, desires life, no matter the flesh. He says I am proof of this.
But it was Emily’s doing. She was with me from the beginning, and she was always kind, always patient. She helped me stay sane. Like a mother, she whispered soft reassurances to me when I cried; told me I was not a monster when I insisted otherwise; promised me everything would be all right. She taught me how to strip the farm from my speech.
He tried hard to save her, carving away at the rot a bit at a time, but in the end he could not halt its progress. She screamed when he split apart the stitches. I did, too. Sometimes I feel as if her echo is still inside me and it offers a small comfort. Therese is kind, but I preferred my walk when it carried Emily’s strength.
“I will unlock your door when the party is over,” he says.
“You will stay silent?”
“I would not even hold this party if not for my father’s insufferable tradition. I curse him for beginning it in the first place, and I should have ended it when he died.”
I know nothing of his father other than a portrait in the music room. He, too, was a doctor. I wonder if he taught his son how to make me.
They key turns in the door. I sit, a secret locked in with the shadows.
Even from my room, I can hear the music. The laughter. I creep in the passageway with small, quiet steps, extinguish my lamp, and swing open the spyhole. The year before, I was recovering and did not know about the passageway; the year before that, I was not here.
I twine a lock of Sophie’s hair around my finger and watch the men and women spinning around on the dance floor, laughing with goblets of wine in hand, talking in animated voices. He is there, resplendent in a dark suit, but I don’t allow my eyes to linger on him for too long. This smiling man is as much a construct as I am.
“I had a gown like that blue one,” Grace says. “Oh, how I miss satin and lace.”
“Please,” Lillian says. “Let us go back. I can’t bear to see this. The reminder hurts too much.”
“Hush,” Molly says.
“I wish we could join them,” Diana says.
Sophie says, “Perhaps he will bring us some wine later. And look, look at the food.”
Therese makes a small sound. “Look at the way they dance. Clumsy, so clumsy.”
I sway back and forth, my feet tracing a pattern not from Therese, but a dance from my childhood. I remember the harvest festival, the bonfire, the musicians. My father placed my feet atop his to teach me the steps, and then he spun me around and around until we were both too dizzy to stand.
Therese laughs, but there is no mockery in the sound. I close my eyes, lost in the memory of my father’s arms around me, how safe and secure I always felt. I would give anything to feel that way again.
The music stops, and my eyes snap open. A young woman in a dark blue gown approaches the piano, sits, and begins to play. The music is filled with tiny notes that reach high in the air then swoop back down, touching on melancholia. It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever heard. Everyone falls silent, even Lillian.
Then I see him watching the girl at the piano. His brow is creased; his mouth soft. I hear a strange sound from Sophie. She recognizes the intensity of his gaze. As a kindness, I let go of her hair. Does he covet this girl’s arms? Her hair? Her face?
Lillian begins to weep again, and it doesn’t take long for the rest to join her. All except Sophie. She never cries.
“He will not,” I say.
“He will do whatever he wants. You know that,” Sophie says.
“She is not sick,” Grace says.
“Neither was I,” Sophie hisses. “He saw me in the Hargrove market. He gave me that look, then I woke up here.”
“But you do not know for certain,” Therese says. “The influenza took so many.”
“I was not sick.” Sophie’s voice is flat. Then, she says nothing more.
Hargrove is even further away than my parents’ farm. I bend my head forward, and Sophie’s hair spills down, all chestnut brown and thick curls. My hair was straight and thin, best suited for tucking beneath roughspun scarves, not hanging free, but still I cried when he replaced it.
He is drunk again. His voice is loud. Angry. I pull the sheets up to my shoulders and hope he doesn’t come to visit. When he is drunk, it takes longer.
Sometimes I want to sneak into his study and take one of the bottles and hide it in my room. On nights when I can still hear my mother saying my name; when I can remember the illness that confined me to my bed and eventually took my life; when I recall the confusion when I woke here and knew something was wrong.
But those nights happen less and less, and I’m afraid I will forget my mother’s voice completely. Would she even recognize me with Sophie’s hair in place of my own? Would she run screaming?
On Sunday morning, I creep through the passageway. Step outside. The servants have the day off, and he has gone to mass. Even here, I can hear voices in song. I remember these songs from my own church where I sang with the choir. I have never known if he heard me somehow and chose me because of my voice, but I remember seeing him on the farm in my fifteenth year when Peter broke his arm, two years before the influenza epidemic.
“We should leave,” Sophie says.
“Yes, we should run far away,” Lillian says.
“And where would we go?” Molly asks.
Therese laughs. “And who will fix us if we rot?”
“Better that we rot away to nothing than remain here,” Sophie says.
The others start speaking over each other, denying her words. In truth, I do not know what I want. When I head back inside, the voices outside are still singing and those inside still arguing.
Days pass, then weeks. The stump remains rot free, but he says nothing of it, only nods when he does his inspection.
He spends his days in the town, ministering to the sick. I spend mine in the library, reading of wars and dead men and politics. Rachael taught me how to read; now Sophie helps when I find myself stuck on a word.
His voice is rough, scented with whiskey.
“No, oh, no,” someone says as we approach the small operating theater, but I cannot tell who it is.
He tears away my chemise. Pushes me down on the table.
“But there is nothing wrong,” I say.
“Don’t let him do this,” Lillian screams. “Please, don’t let him do this to me.”
He lifts a blade. I grab his forearm, dig Lillian’s nails in hard enough to make him wince.
He slaps me across the face with his free hand. The others are shrieking, shouting. Lillian is begging, pleading, screaming for me to make him stop. I grab his arm again and try to swing Therese’s legs off the table. He slaps me twice more and presses a sharp-smelling cloth over my mouth and nose. I hold my breath until my chest tightens; he pushes the cloth harder.
I breathe in, and everything goes grey—I’m sorry, Lillian. So sorry.—then black.
I wake in my bed, the sheets tucked neatly around me. The others are weeping, and Lillian is gone. I choke back my tears because I don’t wish to frighten the newcomer.
“What has happened to me?” she asks. Her voice is small and trembling.
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Anna,” she says.
“Welcome to madness,” Sophie says, her voice strangely flat.
“Hush,” Molly says.
“Who is that? What is this? Please, I want to go home.”
“I told you,” Sophie says, still in that strange, lifeless tone. “We should have run away.”
“Where am I?” Anna says. “How did I get here?”
I try to explain, but nothing I say helps. Nothing can make it right, and in the end, we are all weeping, even Sophie, and that frightens me more than I could have imagined.
I don’t see him for several days. The music room remains dark, the door to the operating theater locked. I retreat to the library, lose myself in books, and pretend not to hear Anna cry. We have all tried to offer support, but she rebuffs every attempt so there is nothing to do but wait. Eventually, she will accept the way things are now, the way we’ve all been forced into acceptance.
There are no signs of rot along the new stitches. They’re uneven both in length and spacing—not nearly as neat as the others—but they hold firm. Anna’s hands are delicate with long slender fingers, the skin far paler than Diana’s. The weight is wrong; they’re far too light, as if I’m wearing gloves instead of hands.
I miss Lillian so very much. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.
When he enters the library, I notice first his disheveled clothes, then the red of his eyes. He tosses my book aside, drags me to the music room, and shoves me toward the piano.
“Tell her to play.”
Everyone falls silent. Surely we have heard him wrong.
“I don’t understand.”
He steps close enough for me to smell the liquor. “Tell Anna to play,” he says, squeezing each word out between clenched teeth.
I sit down and thump on the keys, the notes painful enough to make me grit my teeth. I poke and prod, but Anna is hiding the knowledge deep inside, and I cannot pull it free. I offer a tentative smile even though I want to scream.
“Shall I sing instead?”
He groans and pulls me from the bench. The skirts tangle and twist, and I stumble. He digs his fingers into my shoulders, brings my face close to his. “Did you truly believe I didn’t know? I have heard you speak to them. I know they are in there with you. You tell her to play. Or else.”
“Never,” Anna says.
Therese’s legs are no longer strong enough to hold us up, and I sink to the floor. He smiles, the gesture like a whip. Eventually, he stalks from the room, and I sit with Diana’s arms around me.
Sophie hisses, “Bastard.”
“You must teach me how to play,” I tell Anna.
“I will not.”
“Please, you must. If you don’t, he will kill you.”
“It doesn’t matter. I am already dead.”
“But he may kill us all, and we don’t want to die.”
The others chime in in agreement.
“I do not care,” Anna says. “I will give him nothing. He killed me. Don’t you understand? He killed me!”
“Yes, I do,” says Sophie, “We do. But this is what we have now.”
“I do not want this. It is monstrous, and you, all of you, you’re as dead as I am.”
“Please,” I say. “Teach me something, anything that will make him happy. I’m begging you, please.”
She doesn’t respond.
Three more trips to the music room. Three more refusals that leave me with a circlet of bruises around the arms; red marks on my cheeks in the shape of his hand; more bruises on the soft skin between breasts and belly. The others scream at Anna when he strikes me, but she doesn’t give in.
She is strong. Stronger than any of us.
The fourth trip. The fourth refusal. He pulls me from the bench with his hands around my neck. His fingers squeeze tighter and tighter until spots dance in my eyes and when he lets go, I fall to the floor gasping for air as he walks away without even a backward glance.
I wake to find his face leering over mine. I bite back the tears, begin to lift my chemise, and he slaps my hand.
“If you cannot make her play, I will find someone else who will.” He traces the stitches just above the collarbone, spins on his heel, and lurches from the room.
I sit in the darkness and let the tears flow. I don’t want to die again. I will not.
I creep into the passageway and make my way into the kitchen. Cheese, bread, a few apples. An old cloak hangs from a hook near the servants’ entrance. I slip it on and pull up the hood before I step outside. The air is cold enough to sting my cheeks, too cold for the thin cloak, but I head toward the gate, searching the ground for a rock large enough to break the lock.
Perhaps my mother will scream, perhaps my father and brothers will threaten me with violence, but they cannot hurt me more than he has.
I’m five steps away from the gate when he grabs me from behind. All the air rushes from my lungs. I draw another breath to scream, and his hand covers my mouth. He leans close to my ear.
“I had such high hopes for you. Perhaps I will have better luck with the next one.”
I fight to break free. The gate is so close. So close.
He laughs. “Do you have any idea what they would do to you? Even your own parents would tear you limb from limb and toss you into the fire. If I didn’t need the rest of them, I’d let you go so you could find out.”
He presses a cloth to my mouth, and I try not to breathe in.
I wake in the large operating theater. The smell is blood and decay, pain and suffering. I scream and pound on the door, but it’s barred from the outside. I sink down and cover my eyes; I don’t want to see the equipment, the tools, the knives, and the reddish-brown stains. There are no windows, no hidden doors, no secret passageways. There is no hope.
I have no idea how much time passes before he comes. “This is your last chance,” he says. “Will you play?”
“No,” Anna says.
“Please, please,” the others beg.
“I will not.”
“She will not play,” I say, my voice little more than a whisper.
He smiles. “I thought not.” He closes the door again.
Does he mean to leave us locked here until we die? I bang on the door until tiny smears of blood mark the wood, then I curl up into a small ball in the corner.
I wake when he opens the door again and drags something in wrapped in a sheet. No, not a something. A body. I lurch to my feet.
“No, no, you cannot do this. Please.”
“I can do whatever I want. I made you, and I can unmake you.”
He approaches me with another cloth in his hand. I know if I breathe this time, I will never wake again. Sophie is shrieking. They all are.
I stumble against a table and instruments clatter to the floor with a metallic tangle. I reach blindly with Anna’s hand, find a handle, and swing. He steps into the blade’s path, and it sinks deep into his chest. He drops the cloth; his mouth opens and closes, opens and closes again, then he collapses to the floor as if boneless. Anna lets out a sound of triumph, but I cannot speak, cannot breathe, cannot move.
“No, no,” Sophie shouts. “What have you done?”
Therese and Grace scream, Diana lets out a keening wail, Molly babbles incoherencies that sound of madness, and all the while, Anna laughs.
His eyes flutter shut, and his chest rises, falls, rises. I drop to his side and pull the blade free, grimacing at the blood that fountains forth. His eyes seek mine. His mouth moves, and it sounds as if he is trying to say, “I’m sorry,” but perhaps that is only what I wish he would say.
Nonetheless, I say, “I’m sorry, too.”
Then, I begin to cut.
“Thank you,” Anna whispers, right before the blade touches the last stitch and she is set free. I close my eyes for a brief moment to wish her well on her journey, but there is not enough time to mourn her properly.
My stitches are clumsy, ugly, but they seem sturdy enough for now. His hands are too large, the movements awkward, but gloves will hide them, and soon I will know how to make everything work the way it’s supposed to.
He whispers he will never tell us how. We laugh because we know he will eventually; he will not want his creation, his knowledge, to fall apart or to rot away and die. He mutters obscenities, names, and threats, but we ignore him.
We are not afraid of him anymore.
In the ballroom, I set fire to the drapes and wait long enough to see the flames spread to the ceiling and across the floor in a roiling carpet of destruction.
“Where shall we go?” Therese asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Sophie gives a small laugh. “We can go anywhere we wish.”
The heat of the blaze follows us out. The air is thick with the stench of burning wood and the death of secrets. The promise of freedom. We pause at the gate and glance back. A section of the roof caves in with a rush of orange sparks, flames curl from the windows, and the fire’s rage growls and shrieks.
When we hear shouts emerge from the town below, we slip into the shadows. This is our, my, body, and I will be careful. I will keep us safe.