Thirteen

(Written 2005-2006)

1895

Mary was glad for the fine weather at her twin sister’s funeral.  If it rained for every funeral, she thought, then the sun would never shine and God would be spent of grief.  To her right stood her parents, black from top hat to sole and bonnet to hem as the age of mourning decreed.  Mary’s mother dabbed her eyes with a black handkerchief while her stoic faced father placed a hand at her back.  It was a gesture so silent and wooden that it could easily have been missed, had Mary been paying attention to the service, but she had carried out her own private ritual, and attended this one for show, and to allow Katherine’s murderer opportunity to mourn.

Three days ago, the morning had begun like any other.

‘I have something to show you.’  Katherine had said.  She was ever the more popular twin, talkative, self assured, slimmer.  And fiendishly disciplined.  Mary was still rounding up her hair to style it into a befittingly plain bun.  As usual, she would be late for work at the factory.  But she indulged her sister, as did everyone.  Katherine pirouetted around and lifted the back of her blouse in one graceful movement.  Her white stays were laced completely shut, and yet there was not a trace of flush in her face, or tremulous bloodlessness in her hands.

‘You’ve cheated.’  Mary had said, her face reddening.  How could her sister have a thirteen inch waist, when hers was a gargantuan eighteen inches?  ‘You’ve- you’ve added extra panels or something.’

‘No.’  She turned around to prove her innocence of tampering.  ‘Still the same old Heathcliffe the second.’  As her name was Katherine, she naturally called all her corsets Heathcliffe, as only love as strong as the foundation of the earth could embrace her with such fortitude.  Mary christened her corsets Victor, which was better than the damnably clumsy title of Frankenstein.

‘And there’s something else.’  She raised her blouse higher, giggling to reveal a row of perfectly embroidered cherry red roses along the binding.  ‘William asked me to marry him.  He’s coming to ask daddy this afternoon, but last night I hardly slept for all my’- she paused to enjoy Mary’s blushing response- ‘embroidery!’  She laughed again, and deftly evaded a swipe of a hairbrush delivered by her twin before she ran out the door to clean for the Suttons, the wealthiest family in town.

By lunch time, Katherine was dead.  A heart attack was the official cause of death, but Mary knew it was Heathcliffe the second, laced to the hilt, that had killed her.  Surreptitiously, she stole him from her sister’s corpse.  He smelled of sweat and soap suds, for Katherine had collapsed while scrubbing the parlor floor, taking the wooden bucket with her.  An illicit smile escaped Mary’s lips at the thought that Katherine’s final act had been one of such clumsiness.  What a fool everyone must have though her to be, when she fell like a puppet with its strings cut, until they realized that those strings had been fatal.

Laid inside up on the laundry table, Mary saw the signature of Katherine’s body, unknown until now to anybody; fabric stretched and seams baring teeth at the waist, rounding and bowing of fabric at the hips, the right bust gusset slightly stretched while padding on the left confirmed asymmetry.  Book ending this parchment of subtle imperfection was Katherine’s exquisite embroidery, the name of her hopeful betrothed stitched into the lower binding.  Weeping, Mary plunged the garment into the black dye she had prepared, to eclipse its secrets forever.

The end result had been better than she had expected.  The cherry embroidery shone a glossy black, flowers of mourning, not love and purity.  The steel eyelets and busk, once silver, were a dusty gunmetal grey that ached to close forever.  Heathcliffe the second was finally dark and handsome as his gypsy namesake.  Though ill fitting, she wore him to the funeral of his beloved, the beating of her heart against his crushing embrace counting down the minutes until she could throw the hellish thing away.  The creaking of ropes borne by her father and his brothers signified the conclusion of the service, and she watched the lowering of Katherine’s casket, the surrounding Cyprus trees lending the shadows of their leaves in a perfect ruse of windswept rain.

One Hundred Years Later

In all of her thirty-four years, Jenine had never had a calling.  Not to any man, nor any job, nor any place.  She sat alone in the Wintergarden on a her lunch break from her office job in Ann Street, a burger, chips and diet coke, the last item lip service to the diet that she would start tomorrow, or the day after.  As soon as she found it, of course.  She had tried eating only grapefruits and cabbages, the Atkins diet, and starving herself, but nothing kept her from the tub of ice cream or block of chocolate that was always gone by sundown.  There was always tomorrow.

After she had scraped the last scrap of cheese from the paper wrapping and crushed the last ice cube from her paper cup, Jenine wiped her hands and threw her rubbish in the bin, already ashamed of what she had eaten.  She was walking through the Brisbane Arcade back to her office, when she glanced up at the ceiling.  There was a gallery level, and in all the years she walked through here to and from lunch she had never noticed.  Finding the staircase in the corner, she huffed and puffed her way to the marbled floor of the second level.  The walkways were lined with expensive jewelry and bridal stores, dresses, rings and watches that she could never hope to fit into, let alone afford.  An antique store took up most of the space at the end of the walkway, leaving little room for the corridor to the right.  The diet coke was beginning to storm her bladder from all the walking.  Surely there was a bathroom up here?  The corridor housed toilets as she had hoped, but there was a little alcove around the corner.  An empty bladder and body image assassination later, she went back to explore it.

There was indeed a store, the likes of which Jenine had never seen.  Sins & Needles it was called: declared in spidery writing with a voodoo doll serving as the ampersand.  Dress upon dress hung in the window, laces and colours gossamer in the light from the lamps beneath.  With their yoked skirts and lace bodices, they reminded her of princesses in fairy tales. Despite her nonchalant acceptance of everything ordinary, she suddenly felt foolish in her pinstripe clown pants and ballooning white blouse, which in their efforts to conceal her bulk only made her look fatter.  Something, a promise of magic or a reminder that her life could change forever, lured her into the store.  The saleswoman, although she looked more evil queen than princess, was pleasant and on closer inspection far older than she first appeared.

‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’  No trace of condescension.  Instead there was a smile and voice that could have belonged to a young waitress.

‘I…’ Jenine looked at the swath of princess seams, rich tie dye and laces.  ‘I want to make myself pretty again.’  Pretty?  Who was she kidding?  She had never been pretty.

‘Well.’  The saleswoman led her to a rack tactfully labeled free size, wispy bell sleeves and overskirts in tow.  ‘We have some very nice things over here.’

She couldn’t imagine drawing attention to herself with such colourful things, flattering as they might be.  ‘No… I meant that I want to look thin.’

‘Well, I have just the cure.’  Her smile again.  ‘Only just finished him yesterday.’ She swished through the purple and blue beaded curtain to the staff area and reemerged with a small black bundle that couldn’t possibly fit Jenine, no matter what item of clothing it was supposed to be.

The saleswoman held it up with a theatrical ‘tad-da.’

It was an old fashioned girdle, or perhaps a corset.  She had seen similar things in magazines: rubber and spandex belts to give the illusion of thinness; and on television: as part of costumes in old fashioned movies.  This one though was patterned and black, with long laces trailing to the floor.  There was nothing of the old granny in it at all, just the promise of slimness without diet that she yearned for.

‘Well, I still have time to try it on.’

‘Ok.  I’ll find you a slip.’

She returned a moment later with a long undershirt, and deftly unlaced the back of the corset and opened the front, so that stud hung from loop like a row of teeth.  Jenine clipped it closed, pinching her skin once or twice.  It sat, a pretty barrel around her waist, flab bulging over the upper and beneath the lower bindings, like a mask made for a human on a much larger beast.  Without warning, her waist became concave as the saleswoman pulled the strings, nattering about how it was made as she went.  Jenine hardly heard a word, transfixed as she was with her transformation; stomach zipped in, waist set free in its binding, breasts pushed up to where they’d never been.

‘I’ll take it.’  She said.

‘He’s only seventy five dollars.  Made mostly from recycled materials.  But still very sturdy.’

‘Just one question,’ said Jenine as she handed over the plastic, ‘why is it a he?’

‘On the lower binding, the name William is embroidered.  It just stuck for me.’

Harry was away on business as usual, so Jenine came home to an empty house.  Not that it was very different from when he was here, as he would walk in the door, often without saying hello, take a beer from the fridge  and plonk himself in front of whatever was on television.  She defrosted steak for dinner.  It was packed in two pieces, a meal for her and Harry, but when she was alone she usually ate both portions in one sitting.  But what about your diet?  Maybe it was how thin she had looked, how thin she could actually be, made real in damask and laces.

She unpacked her corset and tried to put it on over a summer night dress.  Her stomach spilled out under the lower binding, refusing to be reined, as she cursed and gracelessly pulled in the laces only to have them escape again, burning her hands and tearing at her nails.  Back in the old days they would have had maids or useful husbands to do this sort of thing, so there’s no need to lose heart.  Slightly well bound, she returned for her two for one dinner.

The first bite of her meal fought like a prisoner against her steel exoskeleton.  Was she slightly full already?  More out of habit than hunger, she urged herself on, while all the while her corset fought back, steel fingered, against her ribs, her expanding stomach.  After the first steak, William had won.

She understood, standing in front of the mirror, why the shop assistant had called the corset a he, embroidered names aside.  Nothing, certainly no man, had ever held her with such tenaciousness or commanded such proprietary grasp or knowledge over every inch of her torso.  Every breath was returned in this embrace, every mouthful she had eaten met with a subtle squeeze to quench her hunger with increasing finality.  And as though he was a man, she longed to be free of this cruel symbiosis to do as she wished, even though she would be helpless and without control.

Nevertheless, it was getting late and she couldn’t imagine sleeping in this thing.

There was a sigh from her body, stomach, ribs and breasts falling in their reunion with gravity as she undid the laces.  ‘Goodnight William.’  She said, draping him over a chair, his eyelets blind in their loose lacing, busk a bite without end.  Her waist, she saw in the mirror, had fattened like magic, the imprint of boning like steel reinforcements on a barrel.  He had bruised her around the ribs and hips already, leaving purple, almost red tender marks.  The freedom and simple relief flowed through her, filling her with wellbeing and moreishness, as through her blood had turned to liquid chocolate.  She lay on the bed just to feel it again, and the indentations made by the bones decompressed themselves to meet the soft malleability of the sheets.

Though he rung every day, Jenine never told Harry about William.  Nor did she tell any girlfriends at work, even though they demanded to know her secret.  Indeed, he was secretive in more ways than one, as both weapon and guilty pleasure.  But two weeks later, she could help herself no longer.

‘I’ve lost five kilos.’  She blurted on the phone to Harry.

‘Oh.’  She could see him feigning a belittling smile, a ‘that’s nice dear.’

‘Well, aren’t you happy?’

‘Of course.’  A pause.  ‘You are coming straight home from work each day, aren’t you?’

‘Why?  Afraid someone will steal me?’  Last time she had said that to him, he replied with the quip, ‘I don’t think anybody would be strong enough to lift you.’  She had demonstrated her heft to him with an equally swift slap, which he had never forgotten.

‘No… I just want you to be safe, that’s all.  Call me tomorrow?’

‘Ok.’  Her reminder had subdued him and ended the conversation.  Good.  But his discomfort told her something else too.  He saw her weight as nothing more than a convenient insurance policy.  Increase the bulk and lower the risk of losing a cook, dishwasher, clothes washer, ironer and every other menial task that she did to keep him.

‘I could kill him William.’  She said.  Over the past week, she had taken to talking to William, and he responded in his own way with a squeezing of the ribs, a chafe or caress through the fabric of her underclothing.  ‘Wouldn’t you?’  She said to him.  ‘Marrying me under the pretense that I’d always be a fat, servile cow, doing all his chores for him with no will to do anything of my own.  What does he do while he’s away?’  She looked in the mirror.  Her face was turning red, her breath shortened.  ‘How would I even know?’  This simple invocation unleashed a wave of thoughts of what fringe benefits Harry and his colleagues might enjoy on such a business trip, women who were everything she wasn’t for sure.  Whatever was happening without her knowledge, there was nothing she could do about it.

Jenine dreamed that she was in a hotel hallway, deep crimson plush carpet, cream walls, gilded numbers on the door.  She opened one, number 247 to find Harry with another woman.  A white hot rage rose within her, and was sucked somewhere far away, leaving her gripping the door jamb to steady herself.  It resurfaced, ferried through the floor up her legs to her heart and hands, when the strange woman innocently asked who she was.

‘Harry.’  Jenine began, and a spasm gripped her stomach, seconds before her own hands.  From her lips came a projectile of steaming bile, rotten and acidic.  The strange woman ducked under a sheet, but it offered her no cover.  The bile evaporated the sheet as it made contact, to feast on the flesh beneath it like a poorly wrapped sweet.  Layer upon layer of her body disappeared, skin, fat, bone, organ, the screaming stopping only when her throat was devoured.  Where was Harry?

As she looked around the room, she caught sight of her hand, devoid of puffiness, wrist a distinct juncture between hand and arm.  She looked down past her breasts like cartoon eyes in a bulge of surprise, over William’s sleekness, to find no stomach bump to slow her eye.  There were her feet and ten toes, for all to see.

‘Jenine.’  A choked cry from the opposite side of the bed.  She walked around, her heels cracking like thunder.  He was curled in the top sheet, yellowed with piss, like a puppy afraid of a storm.  He whimpered her name over and over and withdrew his right hand from its hiding place.  It was a second casualty to her wraith, three fingers reduced to pale, withered stumps.

She awoke not with a scream, but with the white hot sensation of power in her veins, drenched in sweat and exhilarated.  It was still dark, 2:47 am on her bedside clock.  William made his presence known, and the marrow in her ribs ached as though poisoned.  She tore at his laces until the busk loosened, and threw him to the floor.  Though she heard him fall with a metallic thud, there was no sigh from her torso, no sinking spine, prickling hairs or blood rushing to the surface of her skin.  She felt around her stomach, to assure herself that she was still there in the dark.  There was barely an inch of flab, whereas hours ago there had been fistfuls.  Her ribs reared their heads unburdened by the sagging folds of flesh.  Jenine stood and walked through the room and bumped not a thing.

No. She said to herself.  Surely not. I have wrists.  I have ankles.  She began to laugh as she walked to the bathroom.  But the lights, scales and mirrors in the bathroom did not shatter the illusion.  She was as a dream, a mere 55 kilos.  Had the acid burned away the fat girl she had been?  Today is going to be a fine day.  Though she turned off the light, her smile couldn’t darken the room as she returned to sleep.

The alarm sounded, its metallic beep a death knell to her dreams.  Once again, her figure filled the bedroom mirror.  She felt faint with rage and horror, the reinstated bulk of her weighing on mind and body alike.  This gift, so swiftly revoked hurt like a knife, withdrawn from the flesh only to be plunged in anew and twisted like a key, sealing thinness away forever.

‘You bastard, William.’ She yelled, sending him skating across the wooden floor, only to bounce off the wall and land, busk open in appeal and enticement.  Please, I’m just a thing.  And of course, she put him back on over her bare skin, forgiven though he couldn’t ask.   Today, she would go back to the store, but first things first: she had to be thin.

‘I found him at a lifeline store of all places.’  The saleswoman said.  ‘The eyelets were frayed and rusted, and he measured only thirteen inches around the waist.’

‘Thirteen?  Who’d fit that?’  Jenine had been that small ever, except maybe in infancy.

‘Back at the turn of the last century, corsets were what a diet is now.  Girls would wear them tight as they could bear to reduce their waists, inch by inch, down to that golden number.’  She touched her pinkies and thumbs to demonstrate.  ‘Why, have you had any problems?’

‘Well, not exactly.  There was something weird.’  Jenine explained the events of the last days, omitting the argument and dream involving Harry.  Dirty linen was not to be aired.

‘Well, if that’s really the case, everyone would be wanting one, wouldn’t they?  Mind you, it might help if you wear it a little less, or loosen it.’  She wagged a finger.  ‘Tight lacing in moderation.’  She smiled.  ‘I never thought I’d see the day when I had to say that.’

Thirteen inches sounded like a challenge.  In the bathroom, Jenine inspected herself.  The muffin tops that bulged above and below William’s binding on the first day were gone.  If it wasn’t for him, she would have put on as much weight as she had lost during the time that Harry had been away, almost two weeks down with one to go.  She raised the back of her shirt a little.  Although reined tight, there was still a six to seven inch gap between the eyelets.  Could she get it down to five?  She undid the laces, crossed them over and pulled tight from the front.  There was a slight pinch and burn at the small of her back, before her hands gave way.

“Damn.”  Her body was its usual disobedient self.  But what would happen if I never took it off at all?

           

Day by day, she awoke, ribs ablaze and laced a little tighter, her bare back a wound that sutured itself closer and closer to obscurity.  Underneath her second skin, she felt cold and clammy, raw and unable to face the world.  For Henry’s arrival, she bought a new outfit, close to size eight, low cut and above the knee.  Would he panic at this monstrous sight of me, without the thralldom of many kilos, as he did in my dream?

            He did.

‘I… I liked you better before.’  He said when she went to collect him from the airport.  Was he retreating from her, shrinking towards the car door?  ‘You’re like a new woman.  What, who did this to you?’

‘William.’  It was the simple truth.

‘William? Who’s William?’  He slammed the car door.

‘When we get home, I will show you.’  Underneath her outfit, William gave her a conspirational squeeze.  Today, there was barely an inch at her back.  They drove home in silence and Harry looked out the side window the whole way.  As soon as they reached the driveway, he ran into the house to search for William, the supposed usurper to his bed.  Jenine followed him inside casually, and removed her outer wear while he was on his foolish rampage, opening and shutting cupboards, pulling the shower curtain back and forth.  She went to the bedroom to wait for him.  It had been almost three weeks since they had seen each other, after all.

A long gasp from the threshold.  ‘Take that horrible thing off, Jenine.’

‘I will not.’

‘But your waist, it’s like a child’s.’

‘That’s rich, you comparing me to a child.’

She held her arms out.  No harm in using him for what she married him for, was there?  He embraced her around the shoulders, refusing to touch that thing, that William.  Jenine whispered into his ear.  ‘Unlace me.  I dare you.’  His hands gravitated down her back, shaking like a dying man looking for the last handhold on life.  He pulled the upper laces, then the lower.  No sigh from him or her.  Jenine put her hands over the bust gussets, pushing them together to disentangle loop from stud.  ‘Help me will you?’  She cocked her head to one side like a damsel.  ‘He only bites me.’

“Ok.”  The last thing she saw was his stubby fingers at her front, before the tip of his finger, or maybe part of it, was on the ground.  Blood swelled at the site of the minor decapitation, and began to drip on the floor.

‘What the fuck just happened?’  He yelled.  Whitening, he sunk against the wall, and wrapped his finger in his shirt without looking.  Jenine, now less than half dressed, inspected the remains on the floor.

‘There’s no bone, it’s not as bad as it looks.’

‘Not as bad as it fucking looks.’  The words were exhausting him.  ‘Fucking crazy bitch, always were.’

Soothing him, Jenine led him to the bed and elevated the wound.  She returned from the kitchen with ice and bandages and stopped the bleeding.

‘See, it didn’t even need stitches.’

Her patient murmured.

‘You sleep now.’  There was no further protest.

William seemed to look up at Jenine, one red loop and stud reminding her of the contrived guillotine.

‘That was very naughty.  You have to learn to share me now.’  Her affirmation was repeated as she tied her laces and smoothed her hands down her sides.  Something moved on William and she stopped, hands at her hips.  There it was, like ants.  The new panels are at the sides.  They were disappearing now, beneath her palms: the old fabric was consuming the new.  The topstitching flanking each addition moved like an army of ants, expanding over her body.  Could she have drawn breath, she might have screamed, but he was squeezing her thinner and thinner.  Her own body fought back: she sucked in air, pushed her ribs outward, a warring of bone against bone, marrow at the core of the defendant; and the enemy steel.  His seams bore teeth anew, the bones stood out like veins over pumped muscle.  A crimson display of surrender seeped out from below her lower binding as each stitch sunk into her flesh in a sustained garroting.

She could hear her own breathing now, the air feeling damp in her lungs, bringing the taste of blood in her mouth.  I am going to die, she thought.  And for what?  All sight was like her peripheral vision, the features of Harry’s face dark and blurred through the mounting pressure behind her eyes.  Almost blind, she groped for something, anything to help her escape from this prison.  A coolness, a sharpness found its way into her hand.  Not a blade, unfortunately.  In her mind’s eye, she recognized the handle of their built in wardrobe.  The laces snaked out of reach once, and on the second swipe, entwined themselves around her fingers, cutting off the circulation.  Jenine jumped, and on the downward fall, caught the loop of a lace over a handle.  She threw herself to the floor.  The lower half of her body hung in the air for a second before the lace snapped.  Freedom was not forthcoming.  Breath and sight grew ever distant.  In the twilight of near unconsciousness, she looked to the bed.  Did Harry’s eyes move?

Then both husband and wife were out cold in the master bedroom.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Five.

Six.

Seven.

Eight.

Nine.

Ten.

Eleven.

Twelve…

Thirteen…

The air was dry and abundant when Jenine regained consciousness.  There was a skin of dried blood through her mouth, which ran over her lower lips and chin.    She coughed to clear it, painlessly, sending a seismic wave through her body that died just south of her ribs.  William was gone, but the skin on her torso was coarse as tapestry, raw and sensitive from a week of death to the outside world.  I need a mirror, and a bath, she thought.  Then I’ll see if Harry’s okay.  He was sleeping on his side, and would remain there until noon at least.

At the bathroom mirror, Jenine loosed a scream the likes of which she had been unable for weeks.  William was not gone, he was within her, every one of his threads wed to nerve, damask pattern a tattoo on her skin, bones and laces raised scarifications on her skin to make mesh with her ribs, towering like a cliff over her near absent waist.  Jenine did not need a measuring tape to know what it had been reduced to.  It was, and always would be exactly thirteen inches.

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