The shape of beauty

I.
Ally lay back on the stone bed. and met the surgeon’s eyes in his upside down face. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ she asked. He was little more than twenty; his cheekbones were strong and high.
‘My father began training me when I was a child.’ His voice was low and soft, like a bow being drawn across a violincello; she felt the vibration in her stomach. He leaned sideward, murmured softly, eyeing the dips of her waist, the dark silence beneath the bridge of her back, and returned to her eyes, her head. ‘How long have you been having these headaches?’ he asked. He fingered each temple. He lifted the butterscotch hair and assessed the white skin beneath.
The stone walls were damp and fresh. A row of skylights illuminated his polished silver knives, the small golden saw and the neat line of drills. He brought her a handful of jujubes from the tree in the courtyard, and manoeuvred her subtly. Beneath the sloping skylight her eyes shone, tawny.
He wore faded cotton trousers and a high necked smock, and pushed his long hair back from his face as he began to work.

His eyes were like sun on steel, like storm clouds with sun behind. She peered in to them freely, secure in his distraction. His nose was too wide. His cheeks were pale. His mouth – she looked away.
‘I’m going to drill through until I almost reach your skull,’ he said. ‘The release in pressure will ease your headache and the increased oxygen to your blood will make you feel much refreshed.’ Moments ago she had handed him a wilted posy of star-of-Bethlehem and he ushered her into his studio. ‘After you,’ he had said. His mouth watered. Within minutes, he would look inside her head. What would he find – a dove-grey expanse? Or will it be pink, newborn, blind as a mouse? He looked once more at her exquisite skin. He recalled the way she had walked across the theatre. Soon, inside, there would be colours, petals, sweets.

Once he had drilled deeply into the crown of her head he reached for his small silver knife and cut a door of skin in the centre of her forehead. He had a steady hand, neat fingers, slim with blunt fingertips.
He cut her so gently she didn’t feel the incision.
‘How are the jujubes?’
He held the shutters of skin open with his thumb and little finger and placed the knife down carefully. He took up the tiny gold drill and pushed it against t the buttermilk bone of her skull. The fruit, she told him, was heavenly. She had a syrupy gloss on her lips and fingers.
As he pushed into her there was still only blackness – the state before colour. And then, with the care of an artist, a botanist uncovering the last flower beneath the dense jungle ferns, he blew the bone dust and held up a mirror, showed her to herself.
It was dark but there were lights – blue-white, violet, and yellow like gold in sunlight. He smelled warm doughnuts and roasting pork. The scents and lights mingled with the organ music – a small warm world of aromas and beyond, a cold mass of night. Children breathed out clouds of air. And in the centre of her head was the carousel.
For Ally, there wasn’t pain. It was only later that she felt the thin stinging wound that seemed to defy healing; for months it crusted a little, fine and glossy like crystallised sugar, only to break open again, oozing mutely. But that morning she remembered only the colours and sounds of his studio – the grey of his eyes as he studied her, the rainbow splitting the sky (or did it come from him?) and the crisp sugary fruit on her tongue.
He clipped her skin back at each temple and moved his eyes down. He cut her from her navel to the top of her breastbone and curled back each slice of skin. She heard him gasp.
There was the Ferris wheel with its seats for two idling in the still night; the tiny orange goldfish in clear sparkling bags of water; there was the candy floss stall, and the perfume of pink caramel sugar.
Organ music and pop songs entwined. Music whirred, running up to speed and emerging as popular melodic tunes with a beat like a pulse, then lilting back toward languid again as the cars slowed down and teenagers jumped out, their eyes huge, their faces shining as they rattled tales of higher and faster and dizzier.
He stood back. In the centre of her forehead was the magical rotating platform, the barley twist poles, the coloured ponies. Hundreds of lights illuminated the gold canopy and heated the black night. The rumps of the horses were painted with bright swirls of pink, yellow and green. Their forelegs pranced elegantly. Their manes were gold.
She was perfect.
He wanted to get in, to hold on to the edges of her skin as though they were walls, lift his leg to her belly and climb over the fence of her body, weightless, in to her world.

‘Look!’ He held up a huge slice of mirrored glass. ‘Look inside your own skin. Here is your blood pumping – look! – here is your warm fleshy brain.’
‘Yes!’ She saw his humid, thundery eyes, reflections of herself, the jewelled lights of him; she saw her blood, her cells and wistful trails of cool blue veins.
He put his hands in her; caressed the bones, the innards.
He watched all night and she sat patiently though she longed for him to take her to his bed. . The weight of his hand on her arm would fulfil a longing she hadn’t known she felt. If he were to kiss her, just once, her head would float like smoke, the demon spirits would shrivel.

As dawn broke the surgeon smiled to himself. He put her in the corner beside the picture window. On the table her fingers drummed quietly.
As she turned a clip came loose and the skin flapped against her head. ‘It hurts,’ she said. ‘Close me up.’ But he shook his head, careful to lurk against the far wall.
He leaned forward and wrote:
Colours: ochre, antique gold, crimson.
There was a heavy banging on the door and Ally started. Even as he walked away, the cold stone walls eating his footsteps, she didn’t believe she would have to leave. She saw the dark triangle of his back, a line of sunlight as he opened the door. A woman with gleaming black hair carried a dark form and her hands trembled as they hurried into the theatre.

The patient was laid on his bench. Both women had dark hair and eyes so black Ally couldn’t breathe. The taller, larger of the women laid the patient down. Her tongue was swollen from dehydration but she explained, ‘This is my mistress, Zelda. She has the evil eye.’ She grimaced and kissed a pendant to her mouth
The surgeon looked at his women expectantly.
Ally stood and wound her scarf about her throat. As she moved away from him the doors of skin swung dangerously and he started, scared that parts of her might fall out, but she remained intact. At the heavy wooden door she stopped and looked at his silver eyes. Tears fell onto her lashes. ‘My headache is gone but now I have some other malady.’ She wrapped the curtains of skin about her chest like a robe and smiled sadly.

II.
The surgeon looked down at his new patient: her eyes had been painted with thick black lines but tears dragged rivulets of kohl down her cheeks. The noblewoman sobbed and muttered.
He drilled a hole the size of a gold coin in the crown of Zelda’s head but he didn’t go through to the flesh. He left a thin layer of her skull intact so she would not attract infection. Through the chalky layer of bone he saw the fruit and flowers of her country and a small, dark boy – newborn, plump and tiny, his eyes shut tight. Her nightmares eased and he made love to her for many nights in his bed at the far end of the long building. She didn’t seem to mind that he would not speak to her.
When Neroli returned to bring her mistress home she was annoyed to see the woman’s ripe belly, but she pretended it was because she had only brought the old mule to carry water and Zelda would have to walk. She paid him with gold which he took without kindness. He looked past her into the evening as they smiled their goodbyes – he could hear the music of a merry-go-round.
Late that night Neroli returned to the surgeon. She put her palm against her forehead. ‘Please. Help me. My head – it hurts so.’ He would find treasures, memories of her family’s orchards, her favourite pastries made with rosewater and almonds. She needed to show these to him.
‘I have patients,’ he said, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He swept his arm vaguely behind him and she saw his books spread open and a stubby candle spluttering but he moved back in to the room. He could not refuse a patient. He loved them all. Neroli followed, pulling a bottle of whisky from her pocket.
‘Open me,’ she breathed. She took his head in her hands, pulling his eyes to her; they were a dark night far from civilization. He imagined himself in the heavy rain, the sky a fog of stars – remembered a desert and yellow mountains. She was like a night in the Negev, alone, and ravaged by torrents amongst a deep bowl of silence.
Obsidian hair flashed as she lunged past him, took the knife, sliced herself open. With deft hands she peeled back the slabs of flesh and pushed her fingers into the mire.
‘What do you see?’
There was a brackish smell, and he quelled a murky cave of revulsion.
Her lights were dim; electricity thrashed along silken filaments, flickered, short-circuiting, fading and cracking as messages ran wild, failing to reach their potential.
‘I don’t want you,’ he said.
‘You don’t know what you want.’

III.
Much later – after she had opened herself – they lay in his bed eating cold lamb with bread and garlic sauce.
‘Who’s Ally?’ she asked with a playful calculated smile, but his silence said more than any lie, and she found she no longer wanted to know. Moments before she thought she could listen to his sad tale of lost love, but the silence became a black stripe between them. She had thought she would smile and, in the candlelight, he wouldn’t notice the hollow pits of her eyes. Now she knew better.
The surgeon rose quickly, pulling the fur around him, forcing her to reach for her robes and go in search of blankets though there were none. Through the length of the theatre she could see him at his desk, his back hunched as though he were cold. Abruptly he started up again, came for her and pulled her roughly by the wrist.
Placing her beneath the skylight – a gauzy purple dawn – he turned her on the stool. Earlier he had sewn her skin roughly, unworried what people might say of his poor workmanship, but now he took his scissors and knives and picked at the coarse black gathers. Inside her a snowstorm blew chaos across a series of mountain peaks. He needed to look inside her and also into her eyes – settled for tilting her chin upward, to the left, pushing her eyes away but allowing the window in her skull fuller view.
‘I love you,’ he said. A long pause. ‘I love you.’ Gradually the winds died and the scene began to shift. He watched the snow melt and slip down the crags of rock. Birds flew in, chattering and trilling, up rose a soft burr of frogs and insects. Hot steam rose and thick green leaves curled in from the edges of the scene. From the depth of the picture a big cat growled low and throaty like a bubbling pot.

Inhospitable, he wrote.

All the while his crude machines measured her vital numbers; pressure of blood, pulse rate, electrical currents. He made a tentative movement, ran his hand down her back. She shivered.
‘No one will ever understand me the way you do,’ he told her, his pen poised.
High and light, an unseen bird began to sing with exquisite purity. A tightness passed across his chest but there was nothing to measure or note it.
‘That’s enough for tonight.’ He clamped the skin and handed her a pill; she liked the red ones. And yet she didn’t move, only swallowed the pill.

‘I wonder what we’ll find in you,’ Neroli mused.
‘Me?’
‘When we open you. Let’s do it now, tonight!’ She jumped up sudden and giddy, but he sat still.
‘I’m the surgeon,’ he said, but she fought with him, matched him well and he began to tire. He was curious, he supposed.
She injected him with the morphine as though she had done it before, and soon he sat watching her as she prepared his saw, drills, clips to hold back the skin. She was tall and heavy; the contours of her body swung moodily.
When she turned to him with the drill in her hand he was smiling serenely.
She cut from his solar plexus, up through his hearty bone plate.
‘What is it?’ He tried to sound detached. Neroli was silent.
‘Nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s just black.’
They looked at one another. Neroli reached out her hand and tentatively put it inside him.
‘You’re empty!’ She banged the drill on the bench and reached for a small shard of old mirror on the adobe windowsill. Wordlessly, he took it from her and held it in front of his chest. ‘All this time! All this time I’ve wasted! You’re nothing!’ She began picking things up only to slam them down again on the stone bench. She swiped at the skirts that swirled at her ankles. She left, slamming the thick door.
The surgeon remained beneath the skylight as though he’d been struck by a rock in a clenched fist. Eventually he fetched the bottle of whisky from the bench and began to drink.
When Neroli returned he was sleeping thickly; she could smell the sweet vanilla fumes rising from his skin. Silently, she slid the knife into him a second time, and scooped out a spoonful of soft red entrails/shining red inside-flesh/bowels. Afterward she felt invigorated, renewed. She woke him with murmuring kisses; they made love and he slept again, this time Neroli purred beside him.

Each morning he woke to a coldness in his belly and looked down to see a zig-zag of black stitching.
‘What have you done to me?’
She covered her clean mouth with her hand and hid a smile.
Jujubes fell to the ground. The silver footprints increased across his belly, spread over his thighs, down his back, the exquisite female flesh on the inside of his arms. One morning, just as the sun turned the sky to pink tissue he woke to find her chewing on him; between her fingers was a piece of dark flesh, his sweet marrow glistened on her chin. He turned her out, onto the cold cobbled street but in the morning she was waiting at his door, her thick hands folded in front of her, contrite and obedient, promising to curb her appetite.
‘No. I’ve seen your purple, rubbery organs. You can’t keep your word! Your thick muscles remain gristle beneath my saw and drill!’ Yet he let her in and they brewed coffee together.
When the moon waned he rolled his silver instruments in a cotton rag and sneaked away while she smiled at her dreams, but eventually he returned – some minor need; a scalpel, a sandwich, a smile, the taste of salt skin.

IV.
He found Ally in the next village where he silently eyed the single white line – a window of healed skin in the centre of her forehead.
Her hair was cropped close to her skull; her eyes stood out in the milk of her skin and the apples of her cheeks protruded, soft pink, glowing.
He wanted to ask ‘who did it?’, but enjoyed the discomfort of his silence. One of the child slaves, he imagined.
‘You should have left it open for everyone to see,’ he said. But still he studied the scar that served as tattoo, as reminder, for what they did together.
‘Do you -.? The headaches -.’ He said, but stopped. ‘Let me get you something to eat.’
There was a stew that smelled of scalded flesh, from a small man at the edge of the market. As she dipped her spoon, chunks of vegetable floated upward and she ate quickly. Afterward they walked out to the fields. The nights were shorter now, and the evening was warm and fragrant with a buttery sunset.
‘I have another doctor now.’
‘I’m not a doctor, I’m…’
‘ – a surgeon. I know.’
This new doctor studied her curves and moulded them from hot clay. He liked the arch beneath her foot and the dips between the veins on her wrists. He didn’t ask to look at the lights, the music, the aromas of soul food and sweets.
The surgeon smiled, remembering how she had looked, and the way she had turned her head this way and that, proud and defiant and self-contained like a woman wearing a new hat. ‘Does he – ?’
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘He says he can hear the music sometimes. Sometimes he can smell candy floss.’ She laughed and looked down at her fingers.
‘There’s nothing inside me. Neroli looked. She opened me and looked. There was only blackness.’
‘No. No, that’s not right.’ Ally looked into his eyes.
‘What do you know?’ His face glared accusingly, remembering the barren mornings of shame, hot and familiar, the scars he found on his skin, but she shook her head.
‘I didn’t look.’ Her voice was very quiet. She knew there were stars exploding within him. ‘Inside you is blackness – ‘ She looked up, gesturing with her chin for him to do the same. ‘Look. The blackness in you is that mouthwatering density. Inside of you is everything. Every planet, every star, every atom.’
‘I want to kiss you,’ he said.
‘Do you?’
And the kiss hurt more than the drill and the knives and the drugs and the unspoken pleading – hurt like he had removed her, taken everything from inside of her. In poured liquid sun, an anointing – thick yellow light the colour of buttercups – until she was scented and burned.
His tears scattered her eyes, her cheeks, her new lips.
They lay in the damp field, beneath the blanket of stars and dreams, and played with one another, running a finger down the shiny tracks, caressing the dented skin. She put her lips upon his healed wounds, traced gently up and down the paths while he clung to her, wetting her with tears. He dipped his fingertips into the hole in the crown of her head and kissed her once more.
‘This pain is delicious,’ she said.

At dawn he returned to his theatre and the black-haired princess, who stood waiting, with his knife. Her spoon and her bowl.

The Shape of Beauty was published in Lizard Skin Press’s ‘Strange’ anthology.