Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Sawing

Clarissa watched from the wings as the Great Bertoldi sawed a woman in half. Down went the saw through the coffin-like box, then up, then down again. A cigarette burned at the side of his mouth, on the edge of his smile.

The saw broke through the box. He put it down and slid metal plates between the two halves, then rolled the sections apart. The woman’s head poked out from the end of one of the sections, feet from the other. The Great Bertoldi raised his arms, and waves of applause washed up to the stage.

The cigarette in his mouth had turned to ash. He dropped it to the stage. And now, he said, I will return this woman to her normal state, as good as new. He rolled the boxes back together, removed the metal plates, and lifted the lid. The woman inside sat up and took the magician’s hand, then stepped down to the stage. The applause grew louder.

Music started up from the orchestra pit. Clarissa and the other chorus girls danced onto the stage, and in front of them Bertoldi and his assistant bowed deeply to the audience, still holding hands.

• • • •

They were in St. Louis, Missouri, playing the Midwestern Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit, two shows a day with one afternoon off a week. The next day, as Clarissa left the dressing room she shared with the other girls, she heard raised voices coming from backstage; Bertoldi shouting, one of the technicians trying to placate him. That’s it, that’s the last straw! the magician said.

Her muscles knotted with tension. Almost anything could set him off, and when he lost his temper, he made sure everyone in the company suffered for it.

I mean it this time—that bitch is fired. If she can’t even be bothered to show up on time—

He looked around at the company, at the chorus girls and technicians standing at attention. You, he said, pointing to her. You’re small enough. What’s your name?

Clarissa, she said.

Another three-dollar name, he said. What’s it really—Betsy? No, don’t tell me, I ain’t interested. You think you can learn Sawing before the curtain goes up? We got ten minutes, maybe?

One of the technicians nodded. There might be more money in it, she thought. And she was tired of bad food and six girls to a room and bugs in the communal bathrooms, and all of it coming out of her wages. She was hungry all the time; they all were.

She couldn’t ask about money, though, couldn’t risk another outburst. Sure, she said.

Okay then. Bertoldi looked around. Everybody clear out, except Celestina here.

When they had all gone, Bertoldi motioned her over to the box. It was bright red, with wide black stripes painted at the edges to make it look smaller.

Climb up in here and stretch out, the magician said. Now feel around with your toes for the lever—that’s right—and push the fake feet out at the end there. And then scrunch down at the other end—yeah, like that. Don’t forget to make sure your head shows.

She curled herself into the box, so tightly that she could feel the pull of the scars on her back. Ah, fuck it, Bertoldi said. Your shoes don’t match the ones in the box. And you’re still wearing that goddamn chorus outfit. He raised his voice. Somebody bring me the goddamn shoes from the prop room. And hurry up—we’re almost starting here.

He glanced down at Clarissa, still squeezed into her half of the box. Okay, you’ll do, he said. Don’t screw this up.

She climbed out of the box and hurried to change her shoes. Then, what seemed like only minutes later, the chorus girls were wheeling the box on stage. And now, Bertoldi said, motioning toward her to join him, I will saw this beautiful young lady in half. His diction was more refined during a show, she’d noticed, more educated than his usual speech.

She walked out onto the stage. She was humming under her breath, a song she barely remembered, something to keep her fear at bay. She lowered herself into the box, pushed the feet out with the lever, and squeezed into the tight space. She felt the saw move back and forth and the metal sheets drop into place, and then the box swung around and the sound of muffled applause came up from the audience.

The box spun back and joined with the other half. The plates rose up. Bertoldi was whispering to her now, urgently, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying through the walls of the box. She smelled his cigarette smoke and something else, a panicked sweat.

The feet! She reached down with her own feet and fumbled for the lever. There it was, but how did it work? She pulled back on it with her toes and something clicked—the feet retracting, she hoped.

Bertoldi stopped whispering. He opened the box and reached inside. She held out her hand, saw it trembling in the light from the stage. You’ll do, he said again.

• • • •

The troupe had heard about the drought in the Midwest before they’d gone on tour, but as they rode the trains they saw that it was growing worse by the day. Fields had turned stone-hard or blown away like dust. Cows watched them from the side of the road, their eyes dull, their ribs standing out like knuckles. Whole families walked along the roads headed west, the children in their parents’ cut-down clothes, the parents with the fierce, hopeless expressions of survivors.

Fewer and fewer people came to see their shows, the theaters half empty or worse. It wasn’t just poverty that kept them away, the economic crash or the loss of their farms. Talking motion pictures had come along four years ago, in 1927, but Bertoldi and some of the other magicians struggled on, convinced that vaudeville could still compete. You can fake anything in pictures, Bertoldi said. The first picture I ever saw was some guy going to the moon. But when I show them something, it’s real. They can see it with their own eyes.

She took over for Bertoldi’s missing assistant, though he never gave her an official title. They rehearsed Sawing and his other illusions, Vanishing and Becoming Light and Moth Burnt by Flame. But when she summoned her courage and asked him for a raise, he told her angrily that the box office was down, that he might have to let some of the girls go—and that her own place in the troupe was by no means secure. So she continued sharing rooms with the other girls, but they seemed colder now, distrustful of her new status and sure that she was sleeping with the magician.

They rehearsed in isolation, away from the chorus girls. Bertoldi wanted people to think his power was real, she knew, and he threatened to fire her if she told anyone how the illusions worked.

He talked to her as they rehearsed, long meandering discussions about his life, his philosophy of magic, his rivalry with other magicians. At first she thought he wanted her to answer him, but after a while she realized that he was talking to himself, that she might not have been there at all.

These other magicians, you hear them talk, they’re full of lies, every one of them, he said, motioning her into the box one last time before the show. They tell you they traveled all over the world, they learned their secrets from Yogi This and Guru That. That they’re all the sons of rich and powerful men. Howard Thurston, he says his father is Senator Thurston, you ever hear that? Senator Thurston would die on the spot if he heard that. Howard, he was a pickpocket, a lousy little thief when he was a kid.

Me, though—I tell you who I am right from the start. My father ain’t rich, and he sure as hell ain’t royalty either. To be honest, I don’t know which one of those men was really my dad, and I don’t care either.

He began to work the saw. He often had a strange smile during this part of the show, an abstracted expression, as if he was thinking about some pleasant memory. Most of the time, the audience would smile along with him. There was something compelling about sawing a woman in half, she had realized, especially for the men. They had no control in their lives, no work, no food, sometimes not even a roof over their heads—but for a moment, through Bertoldi, they had power over one tiny woman.

The magician was still speaking, though, and she forced herself to pay attention. That’s where my power comes from, he said. From me never getting anything I wanted when I was a kid. From being hungry all the time, and cold, and thrown out on the street when all those other kids were tucked up safe in their beds by their mommies and daddies. When you want something that bad you learn how to make your—he searched for the word—your desire work for you. If I wanted, I could saw you in half just like that. He snapped his fingers. And put you back together, of course. So don’t fuck around, you hear me, Seraphina?

He sounded so certain that she wondered if it was true, if he could really do magic. But then why would he need all his tricks, all those heavy boxes of illusions and that army of technicians to make them work?

And she wondered if he was right, if she could have what she wanted just by desiring it. But she had tried that, had wished as hard as she could, and she could still remember only fragments of her former life. A job she had liked, a place where she had felt she belonged. Something to do with . . . music? She loved music, anyway, had enjoyed dancing with the chorus, much more than being out in front as Bertoldi’s assistant.

It had not been all music and dancing, though, she knew that much. She had hit her head, fallen somehow, and the injury had destroyed most of her memory. And there were long parallel scars on her back, evidence that someone had wanted to hurt her, and hurt her badly.

At their next stop, she found that another chorus girl had joined the company. Minnie was a curvy, vivacious blonde with round arms and plump breasts, just the type, Clarissa knew, that Bertoldi liked. Sure enough, within a week Minnie was having dinner with him and coming back late to their hotel room. Some of the other chorus girls spoke against her, but Clarissa didn’t see that it was any of her business. Minnie was clearly too big to take over for her in Sawing, and that was all she cared about.

Clarissa tried to keep her distance from the rest of the company; she felt embarrassed by the gaps in her memory, by her vast ignorance about things everyone else seemed to know. But once, when they filed into a theater to get their first look at the stage, Minnie stopped to study one of Bertoldi’s posters in the lobby. I don’t like all those devils, she said, shivering.

Clarissa had never really noticed the poster before. In it, Bertoldi was pulling colorful scarves from a top hat while tiny red demons scampered around the stage. One of them perched on his shoulder as if whispering in his ear; he had horns and a long pointed nose, like a carrot.

It was disturbing, she realized, but in a way she couldn’t put her finger on. I don’t either, she admitted.

The other woman turned to her eagerly. Are you a Christian? she asked.

Clarissa had seen so many different churches on their stops that she’d begun to think she didn’t know what religion was. Not really, she said.

The exchange in the lobby, brief as it was, seemed to make them friends, or what passed for friends among the company. They ate together when Minnie wasn’t with Bertoldi, and they went into town on their free afternoons. They were both outcasts—Clarissa as Bertoldi’s assistant, Minnie as his mistress—so it seemed natural for them to draw closer.

One afternoon they dressed up and went into Wichita, Kansas, Minnie in a polka-dot dress cinched at the waist, Clarissa in buttoned blouse and a skirt that fell straight to her calves. As they left their boardinghouse they saw a crowd ranged around a building down the street, with more people coming up to join them. Let’s go some other way, Minnie said.

Why? What is it? Clarissa said.

I seen this before. The bank failed, and those people want their money back. It’s going to get real bad.

They turned around. Shouts and screams came from behind them, and then the sound of breaking glass. Why doesn’t the bank have their money? Clarissa asked.

I don’t know. I don’t understand any of it. Something bad happened, and the whole country went broke. Minnie turned to look at her. My daddy lost the farm that way. The rains didn’t come and he couldn’t pay the loan that year. The bank might have let it go, other years, but they didn’t have the money either. So they just came and took the farm.

But then—they were putting you out to starve!

Minnie stared at her, incredulous, and Clarissa realized she had said something stupid again. The banks don’t care, Minnie said finally. Didn’t you notice all those people traveling, in the train and out on the road? They all lost their farms, or their jobs. Nobody cares.

I thought it was the drought.

Well, the banks sure didn’t help.

Is that why you joined the company?

Minnie nodded. What about you?

A woman sat against a boarded-up storefront, her head resting on her knees. Her clothes were filthy, the seams held together with a few safety pins. She looked up at them, her eyes unfocused. You got any money? she asked.

Clarissa opened her purse and gave her a quarter, and they walked on. Hey, you are a Christian! Minnie said. You know what Jesus said—

You don’t have to be religious to give people money.

Well, you don’t have to get so mad. I was just saying—

I’m not mad. Not at you, anyway. It’s just this, this whole— She waved her hand, indicating the heat, the dust rising up from the road. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Minnie said nothing, and they walked along in silence. Clarissa wanted to ask her why, if she was so religious, she slept with Bertoldi, but she knew the other woman would never talk to her again if she did. And people had to do all sorts of things to survive—she understood that.

Bless you for giving her money, anyway, Minnie said finally. I have to send mine home to my family, or I would have—

It’s all right, Clarissa said.

A few days later she woke to find Minnie pushed up against her in the bed they shared with another woman. The sun was streaming through the window, and in its light she could see a row of bluish-purple bruises down Minnie’s upper arm.

Minnie opened her eyes. Did he—did he do that to you? Clarissa said. She rolled toward her, making sure to tuck the blanket around her scars.

Minnie looked down at her arm. No. No, I got knocked against something on stage.

You sure?

Minnie nodded.

You tell me if he ever hurts you, Clarissa said.

What difference would it make?

She raised her eyes to Clarissa’s, and Clarissa saw everything in them, fear and pride and hatred and helplessness. And she knew that Minnie was right, that there was nothing either of them could do.

Maybe Bertoldi was right too, though. Maybe, if you wanted something badly enough, you could make it happen.

• • • •

The next day they had a jump to Omaha, Nebraska. As they sat on the train, watching the landscape unroll outside their windows, one of the girls pointed to a blanket of clouds moving toward them. Maybe we’ll get some rain, finally, she said.

The clouds grew thicker. They looked gray, like white sheets washed too many times. It didn’t feel like rain, though; instead the air felt oppressive, weighted, as if something bad was about to happen.

A pain started behind Clarissa’s eyes and spread to her temples. She had never had a headache before, or she couldn’t remember it if she had, but she recognized the symptoms from other people’s descriptions. She closed her eyes and moaned.

Clarissa? Minnie asked.

Clarissa opened her eyes and stared out the window. The clouds darkened and drew closer. I’m all right, she said.

You sure?

Something jumped within the clouds, a flash of white. Clarissa jerked, terrified. Seconds later a loud boom seemed to shake the train, and she cried out.

It’s okay, Minnie said. It’s just thunder. It’s nothing to worry about.

Clarissa curled up in her seat, hugging herself tighter and tighter. She wanted to hide, to be inside the box and invisible. No, she said. No, don’t . . .

Don’t what? Minnie asked.

Please . . . She closed her eyes again, felt Minnie’s arms encircle her, press against the scars on her back. Thunder crashed around her, over and over.

A long time later the noise stopped; either the storm had ended or they’d driven past it. She opened her eyes.

What happened? Minnie asked. You scared of the storm?

I—I guess so, Clarissa said.

You kept saying something—‘No, please,’ like that. What was that about?

I did? I don’t remember.

What did you think was going to happen?

I don’t know.

She wanted Minnie to stop talking, but the other woman continued on. We didn’t get any rain, even, just a bunch of noise. I been praying for rain for—seems like a year now.

God, she just wouldn’t shut up. Clarissa’s head felt about to burst. What makes you think God listens to you? she said. You have a job, at least, money to send back to your family. What about all those other people, the ones who lost everything, who can’t even feed their children? He doesn’t listen to them, so how come you’re so special?

Minnie said nothing. She turned away from Clarissa and picked up a newspaper someone had left on a seat across the aisle, then raised it between them.

There was something on the page facing Clarissa, something important. Something from St. Louis, where they had played two weeks ago.

She moved closer, trying to focus, to ignore her headache and the oppressive feeling in the air. Police still can’t identify dead woman, a headline said.

Police in St. Louis now think that the body they found in an alley ten days ago belongs to a showgirl, a police spokesman said today. ‘She was wearing some kind of theatrical costume,’ Sergeant Stanley Kornhauser said. ‘And no one’s come forward to identify her, so we don’t think she was anyone local.’

Sergeant Kornhauser said that ‘horrible violence’ had been done to the body, but he refused to elaborate. ‘She’s about five feet tall and weighs about ninety pounds,’ he said. ‘She has curly brown hair and brown eyes.’ He urged anyone with information about the woman to call or visit their local police station.

Could the woman be Bertoldi’s last assistant, the one whose job she had taken? God, she didn’t even remember her name—was it Annie? Annie had been tiny; she’d had to be, to fit in the box. And she’d had curly brown hair.

Maybe she hadn’t left the troupe, then—maybe she’d been killed, and so violently they couldn’t even describe it in the newspaper. God, how terrible.

Min, she said. The other woman didn’t answer. Min, please. Look at this.

Minnie lowered the newspaper. What?

Here. She took the paper and showed Minnie the article. We had a woman in the show, just before you got there, who went missing in St. Louis. Who looked like the woman they talk about here. Should I go to the police, do you think?

Maybe. I don’t know. What do you think happened to her? Did she have a boyfriend?

I don’t think so. I mean, I never saw anyone. But she could have met someone, a man . . .

Minnie nodded. Even Clarissa knew the dangers a woman faced on the road.

Clarissa thought of the last time she’d seen Annie, lying in the coffin-like box on stage. No, not lying, curled up in one half of the box while Bertoldi sawed through the middle, smiling. A picture came to her then, so clearly that she gasped.

What is it? Minnie asked.

What if her body—what if she was cut in half? Clarissa said.

What do you mean?

Here—it says ‘horrible violence,’ and that’s as horrible as anything I can think of. And you’ve seen Bertoldi, you know how angry he gets.

You think Bertoldi—no, that’s crazy. How could he—

He’s always saying that his magic is real, that he can really saw someone in half.

That’s just him talking. You know what a blowhard he is. Anyway, he’d never hurt anyone like that.

He hurt you, didn’t he?

That’s different. He’d never kill anyone.

How do you know?

I know, okay? Look—you do what you want. Talk to the police or don’t, I don’t care. Just don’t drag Bertoldi into this.

She raised the newspaper again, putting a wall of print between them.

• • • •

The next day she watched from the wings as the chorus girls rolled the box for Sawing onto the stage. Was that a darker stain near the join, the rust brown of blood over the bright red paint? And when she climbed into the box Bertoldi seemed angry, unsmiling for once, and he worked the saw so quickly that it bit into her skin before she had a chance to pull away. Had Minnie told him about her suspicions?

Then finally the curtain closed and the show ended. She’d spread newspaper over the stage during Vanishing, to prove that Bertoldi couldn’t use a trapdoor to get out of a locked cabinet, and now she wondered if the papers said anything new about the dead woman. She picked up one of the pages.

Hey, what’s going on here? Bertoldi asked.

I’m cleaning up some stuff, Clarissa said.

There’s people to do that.

Well, I wanted to read the paper.

You know the rules—we gotta be out of here before the pictures start. He sounded scornful; he hated the motion pictures more than anything else in the world.

She picked up another few pages. He grabbed her wrist and flung her around to face him. What did I say? he asked.

Okay, okay, I’m going, she said.

He laughed suddenly. You gonna read all that? he said, nodding at the pages she was holding. I don’t see no funny papers there. He slapped her hard on the ass with his other hand and then let her go.

She took the pages back to the hotel and tried to read them while the other girls talked all around her. But she had gotten the wrong section of the paper, the one about unemployment and the stock market, and the news was so discouraging she couldn’t keep reading. As she put the paper down she noticed blood on her outfit from where the saw had cut her, and she hurried to the bathroom to wash it out. Bertoldi would take the money out of her wages if she had to have it cleaned.

• • • •

Their next free afternoon would be in four days, but Clarissa felt jittery, anxious to talk to the police. Finally at their breakfast of toast and weak tea she asked Bertoldi if she could skip that day’s rehearsal.

Skip rehearsal, Bertoldi said heavily. What, you think you’re perfect? What’s so important you have to skip the rehearsal?

It’s an emergency. My—my sister.

You told me you didn’t have no family.

She was a terrible liar, she knew that. Well, I do, okay? She’s very sick.

All right, jeez. You think I’m heartless or something? Go on.

She hurried out of the restaurant. She’d asked at the hotel where the police station was, and she walked toward it as quickly as she could. She was humming under her breath, trying to tamp down her fear.

At first the man behind the counter at the station didn’t understand her. Nobody’s been murdered here, lady, he said.

No, I’m talking about a woman in St. Louis, Clarissa said. It was in the papers a few days ago. They didn’t know who she was, so they said—

Well, there’s your problem. You need to talk to the folks in Missouri, not here.

She couldn’t possibly afford a long-distance telephone call. I just wanted to tell you who she is. Who I think she is. The papers said I could go to any police station and talk to them. And I wanted to find out if you knew—if you can tell me how she died. If she was, well, was cut in half.

Cut in half? Hully gee, lady, you have some imagination. Where do you get this stuff?

Someone moved toward her from the doorway. I’ll take it from here, officer, Bertoldi said to the man behind the counter. He was using his performance voice, the one that made him sound educated. This girl is in my employ, a part of my company. She hasn’t been well.

Clarissa turned toward him, outraged. Did you follow me here? she asked.

Sure I did. I can’t have you running all over town with these fantasies.

Thank you, sir, the policeman said, sounding relieved.

Bertoldi seized her by the forearm. Come on, Selena, let’s get back to the hotel, he said. You need to rest up, maybe eat something. Cut it out with all this morbid crap.

He dragged her toward the door. Hey, stop it! she said. Let go of me! She turned back to call out the man behind the desk. Help me, please—he’s going to kill me!

Don’t be ridiculous, Bertoldi said, more to the policeman than to her. He pulled her out into the street, his fingers digging into her arm.

The day was hot, the streets nearly deserted. Did you kill Annie? Clarissa asked. Is that what happened to her?

She had raised her voice, and a man passing by glanced at them and then away. Calm down, Bertoldi said. His fingers gripped her until she cried out. You’re making a spectacle of yourself.

Hell no, I won’t calm down. What are you going to do to me? Are you going to kill me too?

For an answer he twisted her arm, pulling her in another direction. They were headed toward the theater, not the hotel, she saw. And the theater was empty until the afternoon; there would be no one there to hear her.

She cried out again. He forced her around the back of the theater, then opened the stage door with his free hand and dragged her into the prop room. The box for Sawing stood there, ready to be wheeled on stage.

He raised the lid. Get inside, he said.

No.

Get inside, I said.

Why? So you can saw me in half?

Minnie said you had these ideas, but I didn’t believe her. I thought—

Min told you?

Yeah, your good friend Min. She told me you thought I killed what’s-her-name, Anna, and that I should tell you it wasn’t true. So, okay, it wasn’t true.

It wasn’t? Then why do you want me to get inside the box?

He laughed. Hey, you caught me. Okay, you know what, it was true. Now get inside.

She heard thunder once more, though this time she knew it was only in her head. She felt the terrible torment in her back again. She could remember, almost remember . . .

Her wings had been stripped from her. He had thrown her down to Earth, his anger harsher than anything she had ever heard from him before. You don’t question my decisions! he’d said, his voice thunderous, coming from every direction at once.

She couldn’t even remember why she’d argued with him. The poverty and hunger on Earth weren’t the worst things she had seen, were nothing compared to some of the other horrors. Maybe it had all gotten too much, finally, the fields drying up and the crops failing right after the stock market had crashed, two killing blows at once. Or maybe she just hadn’t been paying attention before that, had sung away all the eons in a long blissful trance.

I’m not punishing them, he’d told her. It’s all part of the plan, the necessary design. You’ll see at the end, how wonderful it will be.

But they’re suffering now, she’d said. And they don’t know why. They were the last words she ever spoke to him.

She’d kept none of her powers, not her strength or the radiance that shone from her or her magic—real magic, not like Bertoldi’s. She was human, and would be until . . . She didn’t know. Would she die? Would he change his mind? Would he take her back if she repented?

But there was light coming from her now. She could see it, illuminating the stark terror on Bertoldi’s face. And she felt her strength return, some of it at least. If you want something badly enough, Bertoldi had said, you can make your desire work for you.

Did she want it that much, though? He would never take her back, not if she did what she wanted. She would never see his face again, never sing with the others, their harmonies as pure and clear as crystal . . .

But they couldn’t wait, these people, they needed her help now. And the final working-out, the end of his design, was so far away.

She wrenched her arm free. No, she said. You get in the box.

She pushed him, and he fell into the box. He said something, shouted something, but she wasn’t listening. She picked up the saw.

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Lisa Goldstein

Lisa Goldstein

Lisa Goldstein has written fourteen novels, among them The Uncertain Places, which won the Mythopoeic Award, and The Red Magician, which won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has also won the Sidewise Award for her short story “Paradise Is a Walled Garden.” Her stories have appeared in Ms., Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and The Year’s Best Fantasy, among other places, and her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives with her husband and their irrepressible Labrador retriever, Bonnie, in Oakland, California. Her web site is brazenhussies.net/goldstein.