I was thirteen and a half the first time I killed a man. It was an accident and I was dreadfully sorry about it at the time. L, I was called. It was spelled with more letters than that, but L is what it sounded like.
I’d lived a childhood pretty as a picture, even if I say so myself. Of course, we didn’t have a looking glass in our home so I only had the gasps of grownups and ghosted glimpses of my reflection in shop windows to go on, but both gave me more than enough reason to preen.
My mother’s own looks had rotted into Hag over the years and she blamed me entirely for that. “I was a raving beauty in my day,” she told me over and over, “and then along you came and sucked the looks right out of me, swallowing them down with the milk that kept you alive.” The role of crone suited her though, and I could tell she liked it: the shreds of black cloth she tied to her hat and the stick she used to jab my posture back to grace or swipe at any man who tried to touch me without showing silver.
From the age of nine I earned our money and atoned for my thieving beauty by standing in the very centre of the busiest square in the town with a tray of lavender and rose petals stolen from graves and gardens. She squatted behind me, stick at the ready, keeping an eye both on my sales technique (smiles for the men, tears for the ladies) and the seemingly helpless hands that de-gloved and fluttered like weary birds to rest against my face or neck. “Stroking is extra. She’s got her complexion to think about,” she’d shout at the men, rich or poor. But the women she let pat and pinch my cheeks, coo at my long ringlets, while she sniffed and ducked her head with modest pride.
The days were long, especially in the winter. The dried flowers then were scentless and shrivelled by frost, blotched with decay. My feet grew blue and numb inside my boots. But no matter the cold and the poor quality of the goods on offer there were always customers and we never went home laden with anything other than coins and an empty tray. My regulars were permitted past the sharp point of Mother’s stick to allow me to fasten their daily posy to their suit, bending over me and offering their throats while their breath gasped wet and rapid against my face. I pinned the brittle folds of dead blossoms to them and shifted beneath the urgent fumble and press of their gaze. “Lovely,” I’d tell them. “Don’t you look fine!” And I’d accept my payment and the brief clasp of their fingers against mine, smiling just enough to keep them coming back.
When I was twelve I began to bleed from my core. My looks mutated from angel to demon overnight. Gone was the glassy ethereality of my childhood beauty: that untouched quality that in turn forbade any but the most innocent of touching. Now my flesh curved and plumped in places that drew only the men’s eyes; the ladies averted theirs and stepped around me as if direct contact would contaminate. When I pinned flowers to collars the men shuddered as though condemned to the gallows for a crime they didn’t commit; they muttered words like Damnation and Devil’s Daughter, glaring at me with greedy desperation and lingering to stare even after they’d paid.
Glancing at me over the piles of coins she was counting at the table one evening, my mother did a double take and then nodded wisely. “You’ve outgrown flowers, my girl,” she said. “Still a little too young for the stage, but we need to find you some other occupation more suited to your looks.” She patted my hand and passed me a coin. “Still beautiful,” she reassured me, “but differently so now. Go and buy yourself some sweets and let me worry about the rest of it.”
The very next week I started my job as an assistant in Mr Bartholomew’s Emporium of Medical Miracles. Mr Bartholomew was an Apothecary, essentially, and my role was to help him with all of the duties his large stomach and rattling chest prevented him from doing himself. I spent a lot of my days clinging to the very top of a wood-wormed ladder, fetching glass jars down from the highest shelves while he braced his bulk beneath me, peering up and wheeling me from wall to wall, calling me a good girl or a naughty girl depending on how well I’d understood his instructions. Sometimes he’d spin me round and round on my precarious perch so that my skirts flew right out and I screamed delighted terror as I held on for dear life, and then he had to sit quietly for a while afterwards, mopping at his forehead with a handkerchief.
The contents of the jars he’d shake into simmering pans and stone bowls, boiling and grinding them into potions that he sold both under and over the counter. I was fascinated by the magic contained in the little glass vials and twists of paper he gave to his customers but he never shared his secrets or let me help him with his preparations. “Up the ladder with you,” he’d say after I’d asked too many questions, grabbing a broom and feinting a playful rush at me. “I need a pinch of something from the very top shelf again. Up with you, missy.” And back up the ladder I’d go.
When I wasn’t fetching things down for Mr Bartholomew he’d have me sit in the padded window seat overlooking the throng of the street with a book on my lap. No matter that I couldn’t read it, he told me, it improved the look of the place; let passing trade know that this was a serious establishment. And almost as soon as I sat down, arranged like a shop dummy in that wide, tall window, my legs crossed just so, the bell above the door would jangle and in they would file. Always men, and always in a shifty sideways shuffle that brought them to me rather than to the counter. I never raised my eyes from the nonsense marks that leapt across whatever page I had my book open at; I was a statue they could hover around until Mr Bartholomew, beaming, stroking his fingers through his long plush beard, called them over and sold them things that came from a double-locked cupboard by his feet and warranted the special brown paper wrapping.
Things carried on for a year in that vein and I was happy enough. Mr Bartholomew met with my mother regularly, treating her to tea and cake at a hotel and talking over my progress. My progress, from what I could see, was limited. I did exactly as I was told and had so little in the way of responsibility I couldn’t imagine my absence as an assistant would be noticed a great deal. But Mr Bartholomew’s sales ledgers told a different story and he was delighted to continue with the arrangement. He even raised my pay.
I had always thought that Mr Bartholomew felt a kindly, paternal affection for me. There were times I even wondered if he were my father. So it came as quite a shock when, one afternoon, I glanced down from my ladder-top to see his head craned almost off his neck as he riveted his gaze onto the private contents beneath my skirt. I yelped my horror but he didn’t move away or look abashed; if anything my awareness seemed to release him from constraint. “Oh, you know just what you’re doing, you saucy little demon,” he said and, scrambling onto the ladder, he slipped his hand right up there, where his eyes had been. Shock loosened my hold on the heavy jar I was balancing against the rung of the ladder and it plunged with mighty accuracy directly onto the crown of Mr Bartholomew’s head, knocking him senseless to the floor.
In an instant I was kneeling on the carpet beside him, rubbing his hands and begging him to sit up. I was terrified that I’d be taken away and hanged for a murderess, for it was obvious to me that my employer was dead. His tongue dangled, bitten through and bloody, onto his chin, and his eyes bulged bright red as if they’d been washed with dye. One foot trembled and kicked for a moment, and then was still.
Rising to my feet, I ran to the till and emptied it of money. Mother was going to be furious with me for killing Mr Bartholomew but I hoped that a pocketful of gold and silver would soothe the worst of her ire. Snatching up scissors from the shelf, I trod quickly back to the dead man and snipped through a fistful of his beard, raising the glistening scruff to my face briefly to breathe in the smoky, musty smell of him and then slipping it into my cloth bag. I don’t know why I did this, whether the impulse served my need for a morbid memento of my crime or was more a sentimental keepsake in memory of the avuncular man who used to spin me round and round until I squealed. It felt like the natural thing to do, is all I know.
As I left the shop, palms pressed against the misted glass door, for the briefest of seconds my reflected self leaned in to meet the push of my body. It was a twisted and splintered thing, my reflection: features writhing across a face set stern and harsh with rage. We stared at each other, my demon and me, and then I pushed through her and out onto the street.
As I’d feared, my mother was beside herself with anger when I rushed home to tell her. “What kind of devil have I spawned,” she spat, “to go around caving men’s heads in just because they wanted a touch of your fancy bits? And then to steal from them before the warmth has even left their body.”
I offered to take the money back but she was having none of that, fearing, as she said, that my returning to the scene of the crime would incriminate me further. “No, no,” she muttered, sweeping the coins into her lap and covering them with her apron, “best let things lie as they are. But what to do with you now? You’ll have to leave and go far away, there’s no other choice.”
She made me stay in the trunk while she planned an escape, only letting me out after the sun had collapsed below the horizon and sprayed its own death in pink and peach across the evening sky. “They think it’s a simple case of thieving gone bad,” she told me as she handed me a parcel of food and my coat. “I had a word with one or two people in the know and your name hasn’t been mentioned. They probably think you ran away in fright or got dragged off by the killer. Ha, little do they suspect.” She shook her head and tutted, looking me up and down as I stood before her, trembling. “You’d best go,” she said finally. “Here’s a bit of money to help you along. It’s not much, mind, but it’s all I can spare.”
I turned to take one last look at the house when I reached the end of the street, but the door was already shut and my mother back inside. Through the gloom it was a struggle to even make out which house I had lived in.
Walk west, she’d told me. Keep walking to where the sun goes at night and you’ll eventually get to a town much bigger than this one. You need to find Preston. Funny looking man, paints pictures of rich folk’s dogs, fancies himself a dandy. Give him this note and he’ll help you out. He’s your daddy so he’d better.
It took many days to reach the next town, even with the occasional lift on the back of a cart. I kept the hood of my coat close around my head and a scarf wrapped across my face in case I was recognised. I worried constantly about Mother, about how she was managing without me to keep the house clean and the money stacking in the pot. I almost turned back more than once. It was only the thought of her anger at my defiance that stopped me.
Preston, my daddy, was easier to find than I’d ever hoped possible. I joined the tail of a throng winding with purpose to one of the little market squares and hung around at the edges of the bustle until I was feeling brave enough to join them. The smell of manure comforted me and I followed my nose until I found a straw-filled pen where I bought myself a cup of milk fresh and warm from the cow, sipping at the creamy-sour meal slowly while I wandered the stalls.
People gave me a wide berth, possibly fearing that I was leprous, until I unwound my scarf and shook back my hood, unbuttoning my coat to let the spring day glance over my body. After that I was uncomfortably aware of the stares and the stumbles. I couldn’t turn around for tripping over some man or other following at my heels. I was terribly scared that my demonic self had risen to the surface again, needling through the gristle and pulp of my girlish insides to tattoo herself over my skin.
After a while, sat on a low wall at the very edge of the square, hemmed in by men with sweating bodies and twitching eyes, I buried my face in my hands and called for my father, “Preston,” I wailed, “Painter Preston.”
A handsome man with a velvety streak of auburn whiskers framing his mouth nudged his companion and winked. He stepped forward. “If you call out for Preston then for the love of god let me be him,” he said.
I didn’t hesitate. I threw myself on his chest. “You’re my daddy, you’re the artist Preston?”
He held me in his arms and juggled me from palm to palm, smiling down at me. “Sure I’m your daddy, my darling,” he said. “I’ll be whatever you want me to be.”
It was really that easy, finding him. I picked up my bag and let him lead me from the square.
For an artist, my father seemed strangely un-artistic. There were no paintbrushes or easels in the room he rented. No dogs ran around, waiting for their likeness to be committed to paper. When I asked him about this he muttered obscurely about how times had been hard and he’d had to change career, along with his name. He was now Jake and he was a gambler, a professional card player. I was to be his assistant.
There was even less to do than when I’d worked as an assistant for Mr Bartholomew. I merely accompanied my father to the many bars and clubs he frequented and stood quietly behind him through long nights, one hand on my hip and the other on his shoulder. When he took his handkerchief out and coughed into it that was my cue to walk around the table slowly, circling the men, pausing randomly and continuing on until I was back at his shoulder. I didn’t like the way the players’ eyes were tugged around by the movements of my body as if I held the end of a piece of string kited to their eyeballs, but after I’d completed a circuit Daddy Preston, who I could never remember to call Jake, always won his game. He called me his lucky penny, his good luck charm.
I slept curled in a hammock above his bed, and kept our little one-room home sparkling clean: sweeping and scrubbing every day while he snored in the corner beneath a heap of blankets. There was a lean-to just outside the back door where we bathed in a tub, and a tiny garden, no more than an arm’s-breadth in any direction. He sent me out there to cook meat over the fire pit when he had visitors. The gathered men ate with their fingers, sitting around a folding table and wiping grease all over my father’s playing cards, while I crouched in the shadowed doorway and watched. They were so loud and rough, these visiting men, coarse both in their language and their actions. Towards the end of the evening, after the beer had been drunk and the cards thrown to the floor in despair, they sought me out and ordered me into the room. They made me swirl before them like a flamenco dancer or, worse, sit on their laps, shifting uncomfortably on top of their bony thighs. They were suddenly still and quiet at those times, holding tight to my hips and gazing dreamily into nothing as I squirmed against them. My father, flushed with drink, laughed and winked and wouldn’t look at me.
No matter how I worked to jolt his memory, Jake never appeared able to evoke his love affair with my mother. He’d nod vaguely when I described the town I grew up in, our little house, and Mother’s unique habits and mannerisms. “That’s her,” he’d say. “I remember her well. Proper little beauty, she was. I’d have married her in a flash if she’d have had me.” Then he’d lose interest and change the subject, tell me to pour his bath or darn the holes in his trousers. I looked for myself in him but couldn’t find a single feature that resembled my own. Grateful for his protection and anxious at the thought of its loss I never voiced my fear that he may have been bamboozled by Mother into claiming me as his when he could have been just one of many contenders to that role.
The night he wagered and lost me at cards, as casually and indifferently as if I’d been a handful of pennies or a pair of boots a size too small, the demon in me rose up and killed both him and the man who’d won me. His mood had been ugly for several days, his winning streak exposed as nothing more than a cheating trick for which he blamed me entirely. If I hadn’t been so obtuse, taken so long on my circuit around the room, the card tucked up his sleeve wouldn’t have fixed itself through sweat to the skin of his arm, stamping scarlet diamonds across his wrist for all to see when he finally eased it out and raised his arm to drink. There had been a fight, brief and savage, and then he was hurled from the bar with me clinging like a puppy to his heels. I’d supported him home and cleaned his wounds while he emptied the room of beer and cursed me.
When he collapsed onto the bed he dragged me with him, pinning me under the weight of his fury and his shame, burying his sharp wet teeth into the curve of my neck, nipping at me, nipping, and then he fell abruptly asleep. Too weak to shift him and wriggle free, I lay for hours squashed beneath the length of his body, drawing breath in shallow gasps and dreading the moment he’d wake. But with the morning came sobriety and the sickness that always followed his more spectacular drinking sessions. He rolled off me and lay clutching his head, turned to the wall; neither of us mentioned the night before.
We had to travel further in order for him to play cards with strangers who hadn’t heard rumours of his tricks. Now that I knew I wasn’t really a lucky charm but nothing more than an accomplice to his dishonest ways I resented the evenings I spent enticing the attention of the other players away from him, though I performed the duty without protest. I even played up to the role, undoing the top buttons of my blouse and singling particular men out for a special smile. I would have done anything to win back my father’s affection and remain at his side.
Clumsy and unconfident in his skills now, his cockiness shattered by the beating he’d received, Jake glowered defensively through each game, betting recklessly with his infrequent winnings, until he had nothing left to bet with. Nothing left but me.
I was risked, and lost, for an insultingly low amount. I used to earn more than that in a month when I worked for Mr Bartholomew. My new owner, tripping over his own feet in his urgency to get his hands on me, was a man I feared as much as loathed; his narrow eyes, oozing an infected yellow sludge that crusted across the peak of his cheekbones, gored me like arrow tips; his hands clenched into fists as he wetted his fat lips and imagined lord knows what depravity.
Standing as tall as I could manage to meet this man’s assault I made a last plea to my father which he waved aside as if I’d made a petulant request for a bag of sweets when dinner was already on the table. “What’s done is done, L,” he said, shrugging. “You made your bed when you decided to take up with me.”
I spun to face the wall, to hide my despair from the leering men. My reflection flashed past in the smoky mirror set above the gaming tables and I saw lurking there the demon who had shared my body since birth: my bitter demon-self who didn’t tolerate such abuse. I swung my head to chase her presence, to acknowledge her, and when I nodded she nodded back and slipped free of the loosened leash around my spine.
We moved together, her cold fury controlling my timidity, my pathetic desire to submit and thus meet approval and love. We snatched from the bar a glass for each hand and we smashed them to jagged teeth. One for each throat. Blood gushed as if the men had been Champagne bottles, their bodies uncorked. I knelt beneath the warm red fountain that bonded me to him and stroked my father’s dead cheek, lifting a tuft of severed beard from his chest and wiping it clean of gore before secreting it in my pocket.
We didn’t need to kill anyone else: the other players fell back from their seats and held up their hands or scuttled away, the bar tender continued to wipe clean his shelves. But my demon wanted more. She fought me in a frenzy of warrior-lust, desperate to over-rule my human self and destroy every man in her path. It took all my strength to subdue her and wrestle us both through the door, out into the street and then onto Jake’s house, where I gathered what I could before fleeing the town.
From that night she paced the confines of my body restlessly, liberated by my acceptance into claiming the spaces of my innards as her own. She pressed along the knots of my skeleton and curled her hands inside mine so that my nails stabbed crescent moons into my palms. She glared out at the world through my eyes and pushed against my smile with her severe mouth, twisting my placid appearance into a grotesque grimace. Guardian of my virgin body and keeper of my soul, she spat at any man who tried to touch me without my consent, and woke me from my nightmares with a gentle rocking, her arms within mine wrapped around my ribs.
I wandered with aimless sorrow, unanchored from my own past and reluctant to fully embrace my demon, lonely as I was for the comforts of human companionship that she disdained. In town after town I tried to make a home for myself, and town after town we fled together after one liberty too many had been taken by the men-folk. We left them maimed and murdered in our wake, their dead ears filled with the alarm call of church bells sounding our exit. I trusted too much and my demon trusted not a jot, trusting me and my easy-won heart least of all. With every killing she gained in strength and I lost more of myself, until I feared that I would become entirely re-cast in a form as pitiless as she.
My need to settle somewhere, to be safe and warm at night, wore us both out in time. Eventually she retreated to the very back of my skull and allowed me to forge a cautious life for myself in a small town fringing the sea, while she monitored my interactions suspiciously and reared up in an instant if she scented danger in the citrus tang of a man’s handkerchief or a lingering gaze. I worked as a living shop dummy, modelling clothes for rich ladies to purchase, and I lived quietly. I believed myself anonymous, my looks warped enough by my demonic self to have been scoured clean of beauty, and any urges I had to join the ranks of my fellow courting females I stifled before the desire was even fully-formed. I thought myself content with my lot, until the day my beloved Benjamin, office clerk and saver of injured birds, stumbled over me as I crouched in a park and tried to free a starling from its noose of twine.
He was kneeling beside me, his hands covering mine, before I had a chance to move away. “Let me see,” he said, and my demon reared up and let out a low growl through my tight-pressed lips. “Poor little thing,” he murmured as he used a pocket knife to cut the bird loose then tipped it upside down and watched its legs kick the air before he declared it unharmed and set it down on the ground. We watched together as the starling stretched each wing in turn and dug its beak through the plume of its breast, then leapt into the afternoon and flew off.
He turned to me then and smiled, reaching out a hand to help me to my feet. I tumbled straight into love with him, immediately and gleefully, and gave him the eager clasp of my fingers along with my address when he asked to collect me later in the evening to escort me to dinner.
Our courtship cart-wheeled me into morning song and night-time yearning. I couldn’t sit still for juicy thoughts of my Benjamin’s sweet lips and earnest conversation. My joy stunned my demon as effectively as an exorcism, reducing her to a bruise that haunted the nerve-endings at the very base of my spine, a tender spot that throbbed occasionally to remind me that she was still there. But even she was tempted to believe in this love-affair’s happy ending, her anger soothed at last by the kindness and the courtesy my suitor showed to me.
I would have gladly shared the secrets of my body with him if he’d only asked. I waited for him to say something, to make a move that would enable me to respond with passion, but even at his most ardent he never did more than kiss the palm of my hand, tongue flickering so lightly against my skin I would have thought I’d imagined the intimacy if it weren’t for the wet smear it left behind. Too shy to proposition him, both my human and my demon self too baffled to know how to respond, I held myself in stasis for what felt like years and years but was in truth mere months.
When I came upon him in my room one sunny evening, wrist-deep in the drawer that contained my undergarments and the few treasures I owned, dismay a scarlet riot across his face, my demon unfurled herself and plunged the length of my body, filling me from head to toe, shrieking her rage even as I stood blinkingly uncomprehending in the doorway. Her fury was the sharper for being so surprised; I think she suffered the loss of faith in him as much as I did. Dazed by love as I had been for so long I didn’t have the strength to subdue the worst of her and could only let myself be dragged across the room. We picked up my nail scissors and buried them deep into my Benjamin’s right eye. His left stared at me in horror and terror.
As he fell to the floor his hand opened and I saw my finest pair of stockings, the pair I always wore when he took me to dinner, were threaded through a band of gold. A question he was waiting to ask, and an answer I could never give. He stuttered nonsense words as I held him against me and sobbed. When I lowered my face to his, our lips close enough to mingle breath, he managed to speak briefly. “You killed me, you demon,” he whispered. “You demon, L.”
We left him there, bleeding but still alive. I like to believe he lives still, and is married and happy now: the gold ring he meant for me on another more deserving woman’s finger. For once it was I who had to take the initiative and effect our retreat; my demon reeled and swooned inside me. Remorse had removed the steely pins that held her together and rendered her soft and formless. She clung to my ribs and shuddered against my heart’s beat, making swift movement an onerous task.
My happiness was over. I stood on the bridge that bordered the town I had made my home, looking back one final time before shouldering my cloth bag and walking away. My grief was cold, edged with hardness. Never again would I show my true face to the world, only to be abused by men or to abuse in my turn. I headed for the distant sparkle of a travelling circus some few miles off, following the lions’ roar and the smoking camp fires. I stopped before I reached the crowds and sat with my demon a while in the dark. Together we held the lustrous beard I had woven from the face hair of the men we had killed, stroking the fine threads. I fastened it to my face with glue I had purchased for just such an eventuality. Now I was neither man nor woman, my demon defeated and my lonely future set in stone.
I would change my name and travel with the circus. None but the most pure-hearted man would ever see beyond my looks to love the person I was. If indeed he existed I would accept his love, but for now, for my life, I was safe from the world and the world was safe from the demon L.
Originally published in its entirety in Figurehead (a collection).