The Book of Little Deaths

by A.C. Wise
(USA)

There has always been a bordello here. It has been called a brothel, a whorehouse, a cabaret, and a temple, but in the end, it is always the same. It is always here. Here changes, the world shifting from forest to desert, city to sea, but the bordello remains the same. And I remain the same, inside it, and holding all its little deaths bound within my skin.

I am a memory, a dream dreamed by a thousand boys and girls, selling their flesh for coin. I am wing and eye, tail and claw. Only my skin shifts around me; I remain the same. I am the death of whores, and in the scheme of the larger world, that is considered a small thing, impolite and better off hidden and unseen.

So I watch, and I care for them, because who else will? I love them, when no one else does. I hold them when they die.

No death is small, not to the dying. For each of them, I become vast. I become the world. And I remember. I am a book of the dead. My pages are my flesh, scribed with their names.

Pale Charlotte, I loved first. When I knew her, she was already a ghost—translucent, living flesh stretched taut over hollow bones. Whether they ever spoke it aloud, what her clients loved best in her was her death. They loved the cold fever of her skin, the too-bright shine of her eyes, the way her red hair spilled across the pillow as threads of blood.

Only I saw her in her quiet hours, when she shivered hot and cold, wracked with coughing. I held her, stroked her ribs, plucked music from the harp of her sinew and bones. I longed for her to hear it in her dreams.

I watched red spots appear on her handkerchief; I held her hand, though she never felt me. And when she lay down, I lay with her, curled in the valley between her narrow hip bones, wrapped around her spine. I held her, and she never knew. Until she opened her eyes.

On that day, her body bucked as it never had with her clients. Her breath rattled; blood flecked her lips. Pale Charlotte’s eyes fluttered, lids dark, orbs rolled up to shivering white. Then she lay still.

I watched, and waited. Charlotte opened her eyes.

“Hello,” she said.

She sat up, sloughing flesh, and blinked against irises the color of carved scarabs buried in the deepest Egyptian tombs.

“Was I sleeping?” She looked right at me.

Oh, would that I had a heart to skip for her.

“Yes,” I said. “You were asleep for a very long time, but you’re awake now.”

“What are you?” She stood, bare feet touching the barer floor.

She hadn’t looked back, not yet, to see what lay on the bed behind her. If I could have stopped time there, and never answered her, I would. I closed my myriad, mullioned eyes, hiding jewels behind phantom flesh. My voice buzzed, the wings of a thousand flies.

“I am your death,” I told her. “I will carry you.”

She screamed. I’d longed for her to know me, and now I terrified her.

Oh, would that I had a heart to break for her.

She scrabbled, desperate to flee. I loved her, but I could not spare her. Love and mercy are not the same things.

I unhinged my jaws, and stretched them wide. I became vast for her, all encompassing. I swallowed her whole.

I tried to quiet her fear, closing her in the intricate network of my veins, cradling her in my flesh and bone. Still, she wept. I spread my hundred thousand wings, and carried her home.

I have always lived in the bordello. I am always there when molls and catamites and doxies fall. I was there for Long Liz Stride when the Beast ravaged London. I gathered up her scattered fragments, and stitched them back together. I held her, and she wept against my horned shoulder.

“I wanted to be beautiful,” she said, over and over again.

And she was.

“Hush. You are,” I told her, and stroked the thick, black threads binding her together until they sang.

I am the bordello’s blood and bones, its ceiling and walls. I am its spine, and it is bound in my leathery skin. It is shifting and ever-constant, but it was never more terrible than when it was circus, enclosed in silk and tent poles.

Every act could be bought for a price: the tattooed man, scarce more than ink and bone; the bearded lady, all hard eyes and pride; the fire eaters, too bright to hold. No matter what they were upon the stage, any one of them would bend for a handful of coin. The bordello demanded it.

Any kink, any fetish, the circus would satisfy when it came to town—the living skeleton, wearing his death on the outside; the lizard boy, cold-blooded, patient, and still; the goat-girl, slit-eyed, bucking, and wild.

When the bordello was a circus, my favorites were the corset-pierced twins. The Siamese Boys, they called themselves, though they were never born of the same womb. They were the favorites of many patrons, too—laced together with a ribbon as red as blood, front to front, side to side, never more than a breath apart.

Jonah and Eli never spoke to anyone, save each other. But they were never paid to speak. Only I heard their voices, whispering to each other in the dark. I gathered their words, catching them in the vast cups of my ears, funneling them down through the whorls of my being to my very heart.

Very few could tell them apart, but I always knew Jonah from Eli. I knew them by their rare smiles—born only for each other. I knew them by the quality of their sadness—distinct as the taste of sweet and bitter wine.

One could be bought for the price of two, and there was never any negotiation. Clients would pay willingly to touch one and drink the tears of the other. I clung in a corner of their trailer, a web-shadow, spider-still, watching as their clients grew drunk on weeping and delirious with sensation. No one came to them who wasn’t already broken. More than mere flesh—to lie with the twins was to fuck their souls, feed from their sorrow, and never be full.

I was there the night Jonah died; I held Eli in my arms.

Jonah’s skin grew fever-hot, like my poor Pale Charlotte, and his eyes fluttered behind lids thin as butterfly wings. Even sick, he still plied his trade; the bordello would not let it be otherwise. His burning skin glowed, a beacon, an inferno, calling the lost back home.

Jonah had seven clients the night he died. All chose him over Eli, who shivered, and held his brother in his arms. Pain lanced Eli’s fragile body at each finger pressed against Jonah’s skin. Though no hands came near Eli, bruises appeared—petals on his flesh—purple, black, and pale gold. Eli held Jonah, and I held Eli.

I poured words into his ears, telling him of Pale Charlotte and Long Liz. I offered him the comfort of other deaths, if only he would take them, so he would know he was not alone. And when I could not reach him, I filtered his tears on their way to their clients’ tongues, adding the cider-wine taste of my sorrow to his own.

At the end, Jonah grew delirious. He pulled at the piercings, straining against the crimson ribbon binding him to his brother. When the rings tore through their skin, I wrapped both twins in my tendrils, and held them together, slick with blood.

Eli wept harder than he ever had. I tried to comfort him, telling him Jonah only wanted to run away with his death so it wouldn’t infect Eli. But Eli couldn’t hear me. He never would. So I did what I always do, and caught Jonah’s last breath, locking it deep in my lungs.

When Jonah finally lay still, Eli gathered the remaining bindings, bloodied and torn though they were and laced them tighter, clinging to Jonah’s death.

I stroked the knobs of Eli’s spine with many-jointed hands, and pressed my lips to his. I breathed his brother’s last breath into his mouth. Between us, it melted, sugar-sweet, and hardened into the salt-crystals left by tears.

Just before he fell asleep, still bound to his brother’s corpse, Eli smiled.

I was there when the bordello was a factory, making weapons. The boys and girls there grew angled and hard, cold as any machine gun, sharp as any blade. Every time they fucked for cash, they were going to war.

At night, I slipped between rigid lines of bunks, gripping sucker toes against blankets tucked razor-edge straight. I listened to them talk, my boys and girls. Their whispers were the hiss of mustard gas in the trenches.

It was in those days, during the war, that I first began to grow weary. I understood I was old. My pages, so crowded with names, would grow brittle in time. My ink-blood would begin to fade. And who would remember my beloved dead then?

I longed to unburden my crowded skin, to weave the unseen and little deaths into the larger fabric of the world.

When the bordello was a factory, clients were few and far between. Still, they slunk in, smelling of blood and earth and charred things, scratching at the door like feral beasts begging entrance. And when they came, limbs wrapped around my rifle-bodied boys and girls, they bared their teeth, as though in pain. Those grimaces, those smiles, shone like spent shell casings in the dark.

Bayonet boys and grenade girls—they never spoke to their clients, and their clients never spoke to them.

Genevieve was my favorite. She had skin the color of fall-dried leaves, and eyes like sapphires. While her clients fucked her, she tilted her head back, hair spread across her standard-issue pillow. Her gem-cut eyes—never closing—gazing right through me where I hung from obsidian claws dug into the frame of the bunk above her.

I wanted so much for her to see me.

I memorized her—the catch of her lip in her teeth, the distance in her eyes, their sight passing through my skin. Wherever her gaze went, I longed for it to carry a piece of me with it, far away to another world. Sometimes, she tore furrows in her clients’ backs with ragged nails, uneven lines of red dug into living skin. Even then, she made no sound—tongue still, lips shut as if stitched closed. Her clients never made a sound either. Such are the casualties of war.

When she lay alone in her bunk, I dropped feather light upon Genevieve’s pillow and nestled myself in the space between her shoulder and her ear. Just as I had with Eli, I told her stories. I whispered tales of a world before the war. I told her of the brothel when it was a circus, and I told her of the brothel in thousand years hence, when it will be a filament of glass stretched between two stars. I told her of horrors and wonders, listening to her breath, furnace harsh, enclosed within the bright saber curve of her ribs. I gave her all of death that I could, hoping a little piece of what I’d whispered would go with her when she dreamed.

While Genevieve watched the sky, I watched her. Despite the parade of horrors, despite the factory chill and the furrows cut in her clients’ backs, her eyes remained bright. She stared fixedly through the factory roof, and up at the mad, endless arch of the sky. She did not let the bordello bind her, or the war consume her whole.

One night, Genevieve began whispering in the dark. I held my breath, though I do not breathe, and bound myself in sea-frond wings as I listened. Words passed from bunk to bunk, starting from Genevieve—the stone dropped in the bordello-factory’s pond.

She told stories, my stories, to the Gatling-gun girls, the bomb boys. And in the dark, while the world tore itself apart, those boys and girls smiled. And when they died, because they always do in the end, I gathered their deaths and tasted my words back from their lips, better and brighter for having touched them.

These days, the bordello is a garden. Men and women, in twos and threes and more, shifting numbers and combinations, lie together beneath trees heavy with black, spade-shaped leaves. Branches twist, growing up in strange spirals. The grass is soft and mauve. The flowers sing songs the exact color of a sunset. Three moons hang over the bordello, and the stars burn wild and strange.

I am weary, and I am old. My paper-fragile flesh stirs, rattling softly in the breeze. I am bone-yellow, and the color of ash.

I nestle in the leaves, watching and waiting. At times I cannot resist uncoiling my body, snake long, and flickering my tongue to taste the air. Sometimes it tastes of sweet brandy and plums, and I have hope. There is something here, someone, to lift the weight of death from me.

Colored like the sea, I unfurl wings, and drop close to the lovers. Grass imprints them, leaving arcane patterns on their skin. The world has grown so old it is young again. Only I have not changed.

I am full of death, over-sated. I have eaten years of weeping, sickness and sorrow, too infrequently spiced with joy. I remember Pale Charlotte, and Long Liz, stitched together with black string. I remember Eli and Jonah, and Genevieve; I hold each inside my being.

Who will remember me when I am gone?

My scales are a sigh. I slide, sinuous, between entangled couples, threesomes, foursomes, moresomes. A flicker of my tongue catches sweat drops, each holding an inverted reflection of the world. They taste of sour apples, burnt toffee, and rich loam. None yet taste like brandy and plums.

One woman sits alone, her back against a tree, letting the bark over-write the language of the grass pressed into her skin. A few lavender blades still cling to her thighs, which are rounded and full. She is not like Pale Charlotte, like hard Genevieve, or frost-frail Jonah and Eli. But she is beautiful, and in an instant, I love her.

She holds a fruit in her hands, round, moon-warmed, dark as the depths of the sea. It is unbitten, but I imagine its flavor—brandy and tart plum. Her lips, parted, breathe condensation across the fruit’s skin, but her teeth do not break its surface.

She raises her head and she looks at me. Not through me.

Would that I had breath to catch; would that my heart could break for her.

Her eyes are the color of starlight on the sea. She smiles. The soles of her feet are stained dark with mud.

“Hello,” she says.

“You can see me?” My voice, after so many years of speaking silence, sounds strange.

“Of course. Why shouldn’t I?”

“No one else can.”

There is no fear in her silvered sea glass eyes. She leans forward.

“There is so much death in you, little one,” she says. Her voice is wonder-touched, heavy with sadness. “And you are as vast as the sky. You are lovely.”

“Death is not a lovely thing.” There is no point in lying to her.

“If you look at it right, it is.” The woman smiles.

Hope piles up against the death crowded inside me. Her skin, overwritten with the language of grass and trees—might it hold the names of the dead, too?

I part vast jaws, show her my row-upon-row of mother-of-pearl teeth. I am what I am. I need her to understand.

And she does. “Who will hold your death, little one?”

It is the loneliest and the loveliest question I have ever heard.

The starlight shifts in her eyes, scattered over gently breaking waves. There is coolness in their depths, rest. I imagine sinking to touch the sand-grain bottom of the sea. They are eyes to rock a lover to sleep.

“I do not have a death, or if I do, I haven’t found it yet.”

“But you want one?”

I nod, afraid to speak.

“Then I will make you a death, little one. My jaws are wide, too. My skin is vast enough to hold such a thing.”

She holds out the fruit to me, waiting.

She doesn’t falter as I come close, winding around her arm. The tips of my teeth touch the fruit. The woman strokes my back with supple hands. Teeth, needle sharp and as dull as wind-worn stone, bite down. Juice flows over my ash gray tongue. It tastes of everything and more.

With brandy and plums sweetening my breath, I press my lips against her ear. I give her Charlotte and Eli, Jonah and Liz; I offer her Genevieve and myself. She welcomes us all.

Inside her skin, wrapped around her bones, I sink into her, and she sinks into me. Here, no death is small. There is only the bordello, and it is the world.


A.C. Wise’s fiction has previously appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and Strange Horizons, among others.


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