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“Cassia De Claire's Revolving Cabinet Cards” © 2023 by Palloma Barreto

 

I once saw my mother kill a cow. The calf got twisted in the birth and it was screaming. Or maybe it was the heifer. It wasn’t my mother. Maybe it was me. The heifer’s vulva gaped around the calf, its one disembodied, wet leg kicking. Then, it was like the cabinet cards of the horse, where it looks like the horse is running, but the picture skips, a few seconds lost between each image. My mother stood in front of me with a knife, blood soaking into her boots, and I’d missed a few seconds. The heifer’s belly was a hole. The calf had tumbled out where my mother had severed the hide, along with a mess of organs I couldn’t identify. The heifer’s skin was slack, nearly concave with nothing to hold it open. I pressed my fingers into my own belly and imagined it giving without resistance, into an empty cavity, and felt some sort of way.

Later, when I moved out of the house, I started showing cabinet cards. They were old-fashioned by then, and I bought some reels and a zoetrope, little more than a slotted cylinder on a turntable, for cheap at a junk store. I remember it was the day before my menses and I ignored the twist in my belly, the oncoming ripple. It was the first time I half acknowledged that that twist made me panic, made me want to tear open my stomach with my nails and drag out my guts. I assumed at the time I was just afraid of the pain. After I bought the zoetrope, a traveling ornithologist who’d abandoned his education to train nightingales hired me. All day, I cranked the zoetrope for pennies and the nightingales cooed in their bamboo cages like lost princesses.

I didn’t have an inviting face, the sort that has the conviction to make the decision for idle passersby, says, Come spend your pennies. The children will laugh, and clap their hands. My face was dour, narrow, and tired in a way that looked distant. My whole body was narrow, laid against itself and without any curve to sweep in strangers. It would be trite and untrue to say I didn’t look like other women. But I felt as if I didn't, as if I was meant to look some other way than myself—soft or round, I suppose. But it was like when someone tells you something’s true and you imagine they must be right because you can’t say why they’re wrong.

The zoetrope wasn’t popular, of course, but watching the reel only took a few seconds and the children liked it. I varnished an antique sign and painted it in plum: Cassia De Claire’s Revolving Cabinet Cards. On the zoetrope, I showed a woman waving a kerchief from a train’s corridor connection as the train sped away, and a child that pulled a cat’s tail, and two fencers, one running the other through.

One night while the oil lamps hung from hooks, and the nightingale trainer crouched in front of a cage, whistling songs at a petulant bird, I put my thumb on my belly and said, “What if I didn’t want something of myself anymore?”

He raised a questioning eye at me.

“Like,” I shrugged, looked down and saw my hand, “what if I didn’t want my hand?”

“I could use a third hand,” he said, moving to sit across from me.

I eyed his hand: knobbed knuckles, dry fingertips, and taut skin. “Could you trade hands, if you each liked the other’s better?”

He scrubbed the pad of his thumb against the stubble on his chin. “I knew a woman who lived in a little house in the middle of a field of oak trees on Lilac Lane.” He reached out and tapped me, quick and sharp, just beneath my collarbone. “She could cut your heart out with a paring knife.”

“Could she?” I wasn’t sure if he was trying to make a fool of me, or if he really meant it.

“If it hurt too bad, you could tumble out into a rosemary bush and breathe lemon until the hurt was worth it.”

“Maybe she kicked your lazy ass into a snowbank and stole your heart.”

He laughed, the nightingales startling, but only said, “I never saw her do hands.”

“Did she do other things?”

“Oh, sure,” he said, but didn’t explain, not even when I quirked an eyebrow.

Somewhere along the way, I started painting the reels. I just painted one picture on the whole reel, so, for a flash, the woman on the train had no belly and the child had no legs and the dying fencer’s head flamed into ash. Mostly, people didn’t notice.

In the fall, the nightingale trainer and I stood out in the rain, tucked under an awning, the smell of roasted coffee and bread sneaking out the door every time someone ran in or out. The nightingales fluffed in their cages, tucking their heads into their feathers. Every once in a while, I mindlessly cranked the zoetrope, even though no one had come to look all day. I dug my index finger into my stomach, as if it would dull the ache of menstruation. All I wanted to do was sit down. All I wanted to do was sit down and take a knife to my abdomen.

I pressed harder into my belly and huffed. “Why did you go to that woman on Lilac Lane?” I said. “Did she cut something out?”

“Oh, yes.” He settled back against the window frame, pulling his coat around his arms. “I traded my fish tail for legs. Traded it to the herb-wife and her butcher knife.” He grinned and tapped me, twice, on the leg. “It’s skin for me. Scales for skin. Throw my tail in a fish barrel and sell it at market.”

I still couldn’t tell if he was trying to make fun of me. “Cut you off below the belt, did she?” I said, droll.

He stuck his finger into a cage, chucking a bird under its beak, and ignored me. I remembered the story, the mermaid who wanted love more than life. The sea-witch told the mermaid that all the time walking around, it would be like treading on knives, an endless, dull ache. Like menses all the time.

I looked down at the reel of the woman on the train, and all the cards lined up looked like a dozen identical sisters, all waving their kerchiefs, and among them the single sister with no belly. I wondered what she’d traded it for.

“Let’s go inside,” I muttered. “I feel like I’m going to vomit.”

On a Sunday, we sat on a bench outside a church, the nightingales cooing like little churchgoers themselves. The nightingale trainer’d already sold three birds to children in pressed slacks and lacy skirts who pulled on their mothers’ sleeves and said, Look at the pretty birds, Mama. The nightingale trainer would stand and tip his hat to the misses before putting it on his chest and saying, amicably, “They sing a pretty song, too, ma’am. With a bird like this, you’ll be the envy of every dinner party west of the railroad tracks.”

I’d spun the zoetrope for the children, who handed me their pennies, while he produced a list of songs the birds could purportedly sing. I watched the mothers bending over the list and wondered if somehow all women could hardly bring themselves to think of their pelvis, the meat and gristle between navel and hip and spine, and no one had ever told me. When the mothers came to gather their children, they smiled at me, and one said, “Do you have one of your own?” and I startled, and took too long realizing what they’d meant.

When the church bells began to chime and the loiterers and the tardy tumbled inside, we sat down to wait. I tipped my head back and the air smelled like river cattails and grass in seed.

“Why did you ask, about the woman on Lilac Lane?” he said, tossing a cover over a bird that was seeking to outdo the preacher we could hear booming inside. “Looking to get something cut off?”

Instead of answering, I said, “Is she a witch? A sea-witch?”

“I don’t think she’s confined to the sea.”

I contemplated tapping his legs, quick and sharp, like he did sometimes, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I kept my head tipped back, my arms crossed over my chest. “Why did you want your tail cut off? Was it just because you loved a prince?”

“You mustn’t discredit him,” he said, very earnestly. “He’s very charming.”

“They all are.”

He chuckled. “Well, the mermaid doesn’t want to just be seafoam when she dies; it is very pretty, but quite ephemeral, and a little desperate. Just think what she must have felt when her sisters came with that knife. ‘We have given our hair to the witch,’ they say. ‘She has given us a knife: here it is, see, it is very sharp.’ And she takes the knife, and it is very sharp, just like her sisters said. Why, the things she could do with it. What if she did kill the prince?”

“Even though you loved him?” I wanted to shove his shoulder, playfully, like we were teasing, teenage sisters.

“She just wants,” he waved his hands vaguely, “the right skin.”

“His skin?”

An amused and vaguely guilty smile crossed his face. “Shame to throw away a knife like that.”

I stood up and scuffed dirt off the path. “In the story, walking hurts …” I trailed off.

He rocked his head forward slowly. “All the time.”

In the evening, I painted away all the women’s bellies, but then couldn’t bring myself to show the reel anymore.

We went south after that, down out of the cold and through flushed wheat fields the color of burnt milk. I woke up with sweat stains under my arms. The nightingale trainer stripped down as much as was decent and then grumbled that he couldn’t take off more. I kept on my coat and suffered.

I woke one early morning, nearly retching with the pain in my pelvis. Blood slicked my thighs like I was giving birth. For a dizzying moment I thought I was giving birth, like the queen who eats a monster’s heart and her spiteful belly swells overnight. Fear and disgust and confusion wrenched at my guts and I tumbled down to the river next to our camp.

In the river, I sat waist-deep in the water with my head on my knees. I wasn’t pregnant. I was just bleeding. It was normal. It was normal. How was it normal, again? I breathed into the cup between my knees until the sun rose. I knew, somewhere in my brain, that birth was something my body could do; someone must have told me so, and I’d believed them. But it felt meant for other bodies that weren’t mine.

When I came back up the hill, the nightingale trainer was still asleep, though the birds in our covered cart had started talking to each other. With only the flies for company, I went down the dusty road that twisted around our camp, wanting only to lessen the ache that went from my belly down to my thighs. I walked and thought of knives each time my heels hit the ground.

How do you find a witch’s house? Do you just know the way through the woods as easy as coming home, even though you’ve never gone that way? Or do you go wandering and the house comes up on the road like a mushroom?

I didn’t see the house come up before me; I only noticed the cool shade of the oaks and the rosemary to the side of the road, and I might have passed it right by, except that there were chickens in the yard that clucked and scratched curiously at the ground. I looked up and saw the dulled wooden siding and the gutters caught up with oak seeds and moss.

I stopped. The nightingale trainer’s question rose up through my chest: Why had I asked about the house on Lilac Lane?

I felt like vomiting, for several reasons, starting between my legs and moving up from there. I couldn’t possibly pass the house by, even as I suddenly felt queasy about everything, about whether there were witches who could cut out hearts and mermaids who traded their scales. But we are always foolish enough to knock on the witch’s door, no matter how wise we think we are. I went up and knocked.

She answered, wizened and suspicious, a knife held toward the floor in her left hand and a blue dappled snow goose peering out from behind her leg like a child.

“Good morning,” I stammered.

She considered me and then strode back inside, leaving the door ajar. I hesitated, before inching past the threshold, peering after her as she finished butchering a leg of lamb and then slid the knife away into a block. The goose waddled after, settling peaceably in front of the stove.

“I heard you deal in knives.” I smiled, tried to make it a joke, faltered into silence.

She waved a hand at a table across the room. “If you’re looking to buy, you can see what I’ve got, but none of it’s cheap.”

I twisted my middle fingers together and was reminded of my mother, who asked questions that landed like a knife in a block, who’d never understood my uncertainties. “I don’t want anything. I just want something taken out.”

“I don’t take gifts.”

I leaned forward and, with more desperation than I meant, cried, “But I don’t want anything!” I swallowed and stood straight. “I don’t want to trade for anything.”

She went back to cleaning the leg.

I waited for her to say more, and when she didn’t, I became terrified that she would tell me to go. I crept over to a chair as if that meant she couldn’t turn me out. “I don’t care,” I muttered, opening and closing my hands in my lap, and not even looking at the table, although I could see it was scattered with many things, even cabinet cards. “I’ll sell it for anything. A sprig of rosemary. A nightingale.”

“I don’t have any nightingales.”

I sunk into the chair. “I heard you could cut out a heart. That’s not a trade.”

“The hollow left behind’s the trade.” She turned and set her hands behind her on the counter, eyeing me from beneath a cloud of black hair. “You trade your heart and in the hollow you hope instead there’s a place to stay, a place to eat, a person to say, ‘Well, yes, you’re alright’. It’s not my fault if it’s an unequal trade.” She eyed me, up and down. “What do you want cut off then?”

“Cut out,” I said. “Cut out.” I swallowed again. “I want my uterus cut out.”

She glanced over her shoulder.

I squeezed my hands shut. I thought of that cow, hollowed, dying. And what to go in the hollow? Maybe there wasn’t anything to go in the hollow and I wouldn’t be anything if I couldn’t be in pain once a month. I’d just be a not want and nothing else at all.

But if it was taken out, no one would know which organs were under my skin and which weren’t. Was it only the possibility that I wasn’t just as people had said I probably was? That you might assume about my skin all you like and I would know you were wrong?

“What would I do with a uterus?” she asked and, laughing, said, “One’s enough.”

“Sell it to someone else. Put it on your table. I’m sure someone wants it.”

She bounced her fingers on the counter. “I suppose it’s no different than hearts.” She picked up the knife and tapped the empty table with the handle.

I looked at that table, holding my coat too hard against myself, and I felt like I was leaking out, like I wasn’t anything if I wasn’t hurting. And who’s to say what I’d do if I stopped hurting? I took off my coat, still pulling too tight as I did, and climbed on the table.

I imagine the nightingale trainer screamed when she cut him in two, just to show her he got a say in it. Just to whirl that voice around.

I didn’t scream. I watched it go like smoke, and she with her knife and blood on her hands while I spilled out on the table.

At the end of it, the witch held out a set of cabinet cards showing a sprig of rosemary blowing in the wind. “Just in case,” she said.

You might say that I should crow like the nightingale trainer: Why, I was paid for my blood. Pictures for a scar wrapped like a nautilus shell around my belly. Sold my pain for a good show, and I’ll show it for a penny. Wouldn’t you like to see the cards I hollowed myself for?

But I’ve not told anyone. I still show my cabinet cards, and the reel of a rosemary sprig that starts to bloom like a split belly, but then it closes up before you can see what’s inside. I crank the zoetrope with one hand and hold my other against my belly, feeling it give.


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Ruan Etsebeth

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Sarah McGill has published fantasy short stories in Strange Horizons, Metaphorosis, GigaNotoSaurus, Not One of Us, and elsewhere. She studies Medieval literature, but her favorite time and place is post-revolution France at the height of the Death Cabarets, mostly because the bohemians really did walk their lobsters in the rose gardens and pretend hydropathes were Canadian animals whose feet were made into drinking glasses. Website: sarahmcgill.com; Twitter handle: @sarahmcgillwrit; Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15546157.Sarah_McGill
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26 Feb 2024

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
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