The Book of Little Deaths

by A.C. Wise

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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