The shape of beauty

Ally brought the surgeon a gift, as was the custom. It was already a hot morning behind her as she stood at his door and held out the handful of Star-of-Bethlehem.

‘You must be Ally?’ he said. ‘Come in, come in.’ He held the door open wide and gestured with a sweep of his arm. ‘How long have you been having headaches?’ he asked, watching her walk into the cool of his room.

The surgeon was young and thin then, and his cheekbones were strong and high.

‘Come in,’ he said again. ‘Please, have a seat.’  He was tall. He gestured toward a stool beside his table of instruments and Ally climbed up, perched herself before his gaze.

The stone walls were damp and fresh. A row of skylights illuminated his polished silver knives, the small golden saw, the neat line of drills. He wore faded cotton pants and a high necked smock, and pushed his long hair back from his face as he began to work.

Ally lay back on the stone bed. She met his eyes. Her skin had turned livid as snow but she was not afraid.

‘How long have you been doing this?’ she asked.

His voice was deep; she felt the vibration in her stomach and chest.

He leaned sideward, murmured softly, cooing, eyeing the dips of her waist, the bridge of her back, the dark hush beneath, and back to her eyes, her head. Peering round each side – a space just above each ear, Ally watched. He lifted the butterscotch hair and assessed the white skin. His eyes were a startling grey.

The surgeon brought her a freshly picked peach for her breakfast, and manoeuvred her subtly.  Beneath the sloping skylight her eyes shone tawny before the stone wall.

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.’ 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 imagined there would be colours, petals, sweets inside her head.

He cut her so gently she didn’t feel the incision.  He had a steady hand, neat fingers, slim with blunt fingertips.

With the exquisite silver knife, he cut a door of skin in the top of her head.

‘How is the peach?’

With the small gold saw, he cut through the yellow-white bone of her skull. The peach, she told him, was heavenly. She had juice on her lips and fingers.

As he cut there was still only blackness – not an absence of colour but the state before colour, the potential to become colour.  And then he peeled the skin back, rolled it back on itself with the care of an artist, a botanist lifting the last flower from the dense jungle undergrowth, and then her head was filled like a fairground and he held up a mirror, showed her to herself.

There were lights. They were blue white, violet, and yellow like gold in sunlight. He saw a merry-go-round with peeling ponies moving up and down beneath red and white awning.  He smelled warm doughnuts and roasting pork.  The smells and lights mingled with the organ music into a dark mass of night.  Children breathed out cold clouds of air.

For Ally, there wasn’t pain.  Only later would she notice the thin stinging wound that seemed to defy healing; for months it would crust a little, crystallise like sugar, only to break open again, oozing mutely.  But that morning she remembered the colours and sounds – the grey of his eyes, the muted pink dawn, the melancholy song of the bower bird, the rainbow splitting the sky (or did it come from him?) and the crisp scent of peaches on her tongue.

He cut her from her breastbone to the middle of her belly and carefully curled back each slice of skin.  She heard him gasp. She heard his breath in his throat. There was the Ferris wheel with its seats for two swinging softly in the still night; the tiny orange goldfish in clear sparkling bags of water; there was the candy floss stall, and the sweet scent of hot spun sugar.

Sirens shone and sang and music whirred, running up to speed – popular melodic tunes with a beat like a pulse, then lilting back toward languid again as the cars and ponies slowed down.

And there, in the centre of her forehead was the merry-go-round.

She was perfect.

Couples emerged from boats at the end of the Tunnel of Love, teenagers in groups, the boys behind the girls, wooing and whistling, and every face shining and flushed, steams of cold breath huffing into the darkness on tales of higher and faster and dizzier, children up from their beds late with eyes wide like jades and sapphires.

All was turned on its head – freaks commanded awe and money, their status elevated to that of traveller or wanderer.  Minstrel.  Everything was reversed, pushing joy and relief into the black air.

He wanted to climb 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 music, reflections of herself, the jeweled lights of him; she saw blood and 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.  Now and then a shooting star passed quickly across his pupil, his silver iris, and in to whiteness.

As dawn broke the surgeon smiled to himself. He put her in the corner and began to make notes as she sat at the picture window, the rainbow framing above her, her head turned in profile. Her skin was pushed back like shutters and her head revealed like an office block, a shopping mall – networks of escalators carrying and depositing.  On the table her fingers drummed quietly.

Her skin flapped against her head.  From the corner of her eye, she could see the air turn hot around him; it moved off him in waves of light, minute particles of hot gas dancing upward.

‘It hurts,’ she said. ‘Close me up.’  But he shook his head, careful to lurk against the far wall.  She is open and the air and spring sun can all get in; she is exposed to the elements of his seasons. ‘Complete me.’  He didn’t answer.  ‘What am I supposed to do now?’

She watched him lean forward and write:

Colours: ochre, antique gold, crimson.

‘There’s nothing more I can do for you now,’ he said.

‘But we haven’t finished.’

He inclined his head – one finite movement.  ‘No. We have. I have more patients,’ he added, in case she didn’t understand.

As she moved away from him the door of skin swung dangerously and he started, neither toward her nor away from her but within himself, scared that parts of her might fall out, but she remained intact as she spoke.  ‘But you can’t leave me like this!’

He didn’t open the door for her as she pulled her coat across her throat.  A last act of gentleness would hurt her more; he walked back in to the cold fog of his theatre, the stone walls eating his footsteps.

It was the black-haired Neroli who brought Zelda to him. She had arrived at his door coated in sweat, filmed with dry dust. Her tongue was swollen from dehydration; she carried her friend in her arms.  The people in Zelda’s village feared for the young woman’s life. Her head, they said, was possessed by evil spirits.

He drilled a hole the size of a gold coin but he didn’t go through to the flesh. He left a thin layer of her skull in tact so she would not attract infection. Through the opaque 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 ceased and he made love to her for many nights in his bed at the far end of the long building. She didn’t mind that he would not speak to her.

Neroli returned to bring her home.

‘She can’t leave,’ the surgeon said and Neroli saw the child, lying on his back, chewing his toes.

Neroli stood in the dim foyer, her breath quick and steamy, her eyes burning as he knew they would. ‘Please. I have a terrible headache.’ He would find treasures she knew, memories of her family’s orchards, her favourite pastries made with rosewater and almonds

‘I have a patient.’  He swept his arm vaguely behind him and she saw his books spread open and a stubby candle burning feebly but he moved back in to the room and she followed, pulling a bottle of whisky from her pocket.

‘She’s lying.’ The two of them turned to see Zelda at the mouth of the bedroom. She held the tiny child to her breast. Her skin gleamed like burnt sugar.

‘Open me,’ Neroli breathed. She took his head in her hands, pulling his eyes to her – hers were black, flashing and slicing like thunderstorms, or mirrors; they were a dark night far from company, far from civilization.  He imagined himself in the heavy rain, the sky a fog of stars – remembers a desert and yellow mountains.  She’s like a night in the Negev, alone, and ravaged by torrents amongst a deep bowl of silence.

Too quickly she lunged past him, took the gold saw knife, sliced herself open.  With deft hands she peeled back the two 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; they flickered, short-circuiting, fading and cracking as messages thrashed and jumped, failing to reach their potential.

‘I don’t want you,’ he said.

‘You don’t know what you want.’

Much later – after she had opened herself – they lay in his theatre 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.  Minutes 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, angrily, pulling the fur around him, forcing her to reach for her clothes 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 – midnight blue, ink sky, startling crisp stars – he turned her on the stool.  Some weeks before 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 and settled for titling 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, slip down the crags of rock.  Birds flew in, chattering and squalling, up rose a soft burr of frogs and insects.  Hot steam began to rise as thick green leaves curled in from the edges of the window.  From the depth of the picture a 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.’

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.

The tree in the town square stood leafless, buds formed, tiny miraculous green shoots emerged like fingers, unfurled as small leaves like lime green flags.  Zelda returned to her village, her son had grown, his limbs were strong. Her head was light.

‘I wonder what we’ll find in you,’ Neroli mused.

‘Me?’

‘When we open you.  Let’s do it now, this morning!’  She jumped up sudden and giddy, but of course he refused.

‘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.

Ally was shorter and thinner.  Her body more angled and lifted by air.  All the bodies pleased him.

When she turned to him with the drill in her hand he was smiling beatifically.

Neroli began below the chest where she could see the bottom corner of his ribs, his hearty bone plate, and below, pumping tubes of red, shining inside flesh.

‘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.  You’re a vacuum.’  She gasped in disgust.  She’d raised her voice by then; she slammed the knives and reached for a small shard of old mirror near 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.  Maniacally, she gathered the skirts that swirled at her ankles while clinging to her hips. 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.  After a long time 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 innards.  Afterward she felt invigorated, renewed.  She woke him with gentle murmuring kisses and whispered lovingly at him; they made love and he slept again, this time with Neroli purring drowsily beside him.

Each morning he woke to a coldness in his belly and looked down to see a silver trail, a scar.

‘What have you done to me?’

She wiped the back of her hand across her clean mouth and hid a smile.

In time 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, early, he woke to find her chewing on him; between her fingers a piece of dark flesh, his sweet marrow glistening on her chin.

When she was sleeping he turned her out of her bed, outside, onto the cold stone.  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.

He grimaced.  ‘I’ve seen your purple, rubbery organs.  You can’t keep your word!  Your thick muscles remain gristle beneath my saw and drill!’

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 scent of salt skin.

He found Ally in the next village where he silently eyed the three white lines – the door of skin. Her eyes were swollen.

‘Ally?’

Her hair was cut short, 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.

The line from her temple, down over her cheekbone, was stitched over.  He wanted to ask ‘who did it?’, but enjoyed the discomfort of his silence.  One of the child slaves, he imagined.

‘Only I, who made the cut, can see the join,’ he announces.  But it’s no longer his wound, his incision.

‘I did it myself. Now it’s mine,’ says Ally.

‘You should have left it open for everyone to see.’  But still he studies the scar that serves as tattoo, as reminder, for what they did together.

‘What did we do together?’ she asked.

‘Do you -.? The headaches -.’ He said, but stopped. ‘Let me get you a drink, something to eat.’

There was a stew with an aroma 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 while the steam was still rising.  Afterward they walked out to the fields.  The nights were shorter, and the evenings 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 studies curves and then copies them. He moulds them from hot clay. He likes the arch beneath her foot and the dips between the veins on her wrists. He doesn’t ask to look at the lights, the music, the ready scents of soul food and immediate sweets.

The surgeon smiled, remembering how they looked, and the way she smiled, turning her head this way and that, proud and defiant and self-contained like a woman wearing a new hat. ‘Does he cut – ’

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘He says he can hear the music sometimes. Sometimes he can smell candy floss.’ He watched her smile girlishly.

‘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. ‘It’s not nothing, it’s the galaxy.  It’s the whole world; the beginning of everything.’

‘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. I know without looking.’ She knew there were stars exploding within him.  ‘That’s what we’re made of – exploded stars.’  The thought seemed to please her.

‘I want to kiss you,’ he said.

‘Do you?’

And the kiss hurt more than the saw and the knives and the drugs and the pleading – hurt like he had removed her, taken everything from inside of her. In poured liquid sun – thick yellow light the colour of buttercups – until she was scented and burned.

His tears scattered her eyes, her cheeks, her new lips.

‘This pain is delicious,’ she said.

They lay in wet fields, beneath blankets 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 put a hand to her cheek, and, with the tips of his fingers, dipped into the hole in the crown of her head.

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

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