Horror & Dark Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

Seven Steps to Beauty for a Girl Named Avarice

1. Find yourself born beyond the pale, in a cottage overshadowed by the forest.

She’s born in a pine-wood cottage, birches tangled over its roof, snow burying the log pile. When she’s still young, her father disappears in a war of musket-shot and horses screaming into the gunpowder dark. Her mother scrapes a living by stealing flowers from the gardens of the fine half-timbered houses round the fountain and hocking them in the market. Mornings, the girl accompanies her mother, the armfuls of pilfered calla lilies leaving pollen-smears on her skin. Afternoons, the girl returns to the cottage to sweep the front step with a crooked willow-broom, to haul the laundry to the stream and scrub it on the granite there.

In a story, this girl would be fair and lithe, red-lipped, pure of heart. After many trials, her beauty would catch the eye of one of the noblemen who ride along the well-kept road that skirts the village. She watches them sometimes, through the hedge. In a story, one of them would find himself enamored of her spirit and her face, and thus she would win an enamel jewelry box full of ice-cut gems and gold-limned embroidery, carriages to the capital and the knowledge that she never belonged in the tiny tight streets of the village after all.

But there’s one problem: she’s not beautiful.

You don’t need to know what she looks like, but suffice to say no one watches her through the hedge or whispers in the marketplace of the beautiful girl in the pauper’s cottage. She is unspied, she is undesired. In the void of time left by the absence of such attention, she roves the forest, neglecting her chores. She loses herself in the gluttony of a fungus crawling across the forest floor and in the pattern of silver ripples in the brook when a storm’s setting itself on the horizon. She whispers to animals, but never the live ones chattering in the treetops. She only speaks to the ones she finds dead, their bones roughed by long seasons sunk into the soil. She strips skin from their skulls; she memorizes their wisdom, their deepest secrets, the things they’ve seen men do, the assurance cold in their mouths that there is more than this. After, she buries them, leaving no markers so no other soul can disturb their bones.

And so when she is still a girl-child, she learns that there is something beyond the bland facade of the village, that the world is magical, mystical, and that it also has teeth.

2. Grow up, grow hungry.

She grows tall and broad, her hands capable, red from the dishwashing and from the long dry afternoons in the darkling forest. By her sixteenth year, other girls are moving into the pattern of the village: their husbands seek them round the bridal well, they bear screaming ugly children.

No one calls her round the bridal well. The village boys never holler or grab her in the market square, which she knows is their way of wooing. The other ugly girls in the village compensate for their ugliness by becoming sweet, or spirited, or by learning baking and fine embroidery. But her childhood spent in the seething belly of the forest grew something inside her that she can only describe as a hot blinding jewel; crystallized from all the turmoil and want whispered to her by the stinking bones of the dark-tumbled animals. It is because of this that she knows she will never be chosen as one of the dutiful wives of the village men. They do not want a wife with a hot blinding jewel roiling in her heart, and she does not want their want; she wants more.

She knows if she were beautiful, she could have her more. She could transcend village life the only way she can imagine: through one of those noblemen who never spied her through the hedge when she was young. A castle, and with it, a vindication for the strange girl.

And so she must wait, to age into beauty before she becomes too old for love at all.

She doesn’t want to wait.

And so she turns to Lilé Mar.

3. Let her capture your heart.

Round the other side of the village, halfway up the mountainside with its scrub-trees and treacherous bald-face paths, there lives another girl. And this—this girl is beautiful. Her hair is the color of the vampires’ they say live far to the south. Her eyes are cerulean, or violet. Her breasts move in her dress and her lips are red, bow-shaped, perfect for kissing or more.

Her name is Lilé Mar, and she has no parents; she certainly has no husband. No one knows how long she’s lived on the bald-face mountainside. Rarely does she allow anyone in the village to see her face: most market days she wears a veil of deepest purple lace, and spits and hisses if any of them dares to gawk at her, to let her see that she’s being seen. She is untouchable; she is beautiful but she hordes the beauty for herself, and so they whisper and hate and on the few mornings when she forgoes her veil, they ponder whether her beauty is entirely human (it’s not, of course).

There’s a word for a woman whose beauty transcends into incendiary power. It’s an ugly word, a word that led to the burning of Lilé Mar’s mother a very long time ago.

But the girl, the ugly girl, is ready to become that word. She crosses Lilé Mar’s threshold and she beholds vast jars of seething ginger; a grand bathtub with ore clawfeet and a wicked stain on its bottom; hundreds of mirrors in various states of decay, all reflecting Lilé Mar’s face, except for sometimes when a shadow flickers instead of her face, and the shadow has teeth. The girl explains her plight, her desire. Lilé Mar is all too quick to agree. She takes her hand across the table and they shake, like businessmen trading men’s lives for capital, and the ugly girl feels the jewel inside her shifting into place, as though until now, the bright workings that make up her inner self were concealed by a sheer curtain, and only now it’s been pulled back to reveal the truth of things.

“What’s your name?” Lilé Mar asks. Her voice is throaty, older than she looks.

The girl shrugs. She hates her name. It’s ordinary.

“Then I shall call you Avarice.” Lilé Mar smiles, and all her knife-toothed reflections smile in the hundreds of mirrors on the walls behind her.

4. Learn to live your avariciousness; learn to eat it, learn to drink it.

Lilé Mar teaches Avarice how to apply too much black kohl shadow to her ordinary eyes, how to break open hawthorn berries and rub them on her lips, how to draw swirls of shimmer-pattern on her eyelids. They slip into the gardens where Avarice’s mother has been stealing all her life: they pick floribunda and hybrid tea roses and they eat them, thorns and all, in the forest. They rub their wrists with the marrow from owl-bones. When winter comes, they stand naked by the lake at the bottom of the mountain, and snap icicles out of the filthy frozen waterfall plummeting down the cliffs. They wear this ice against themselves until it melts, a sudden warmth flooding their shifts.

“These are the Little Spells,” Lilé Mar says, braiding and unbraiding her hair into a dark map of strands and curls. “They will slowly start to give you what your heart desires. You’ll see.”

The Little Spells work for Lilé Mar. Sometimes, mornings, she appears tired, as though a much older beast is wearing her skin, but after the Little Spells, her face in the mirrors and in the flesh transforms back to loveliness.

But nothing of the sort happens for Avarice. Yes, after the Little Spells, the jewel-explosion always stands in sharp relief inside her heart, but she will never transcend the village, never show them all, if she doesn’t become beautiful. And in truth, on some tortured nights, Avarice despises Lilé Mar, hates the ease with which the reflections in Lilé Mar’s mirrors grow more lurid, more deadly, hates the expectant hush that falls over the village square when Lilé Mar strides through in veil and thick boots.

In these moments, she at last finds common ground with the villagers. They hate Lilé Mar too; one day, in summer, a little boy, egged on by his raucous friends, hurls a rock at her. She flicks it away before it has any chance of grazing her face; then she smiles at the boy, although it isn’t really a smile.

Avarice hates herself, then, for despising Lilé Mar, and she throws herself into the Little Spells with the same intensity she applied to finding those animal-skulls. She eats more roses, and she screams when the thorns scrape her inside, and Lilé Mar screams with her. She wraps herself in icicles and learns to run with the frightened deer that skitter along the cliff-top under the waning crescent moon. Soon, soon, she will have something to put in the mirror, something to put in a thousand mirrors, and then, the nobleman behind the hedge, and victory.

Although she has started to wonder if that is what she really wants. Truth be told, she knows nothing of noblemen, of castle life and whether she would take to it. She knows it would mark her as separate; that’s all. But is it really what she wants?

But then, what else is there?

5. Learn your true nature; learn to eat and drink that too.

She whispers this to Lilé Mar one crepuscular afternoon in Lilé Mar’s stone house. She has come to trust Lilé Mar, with everything. She whispers of why she wants to become beautiful, of how she dreams of leaving, dreams of becoming the girl whose oddness caused her to win in the end instead of lose.

Lilé Mar stares at her. Her teeth are so white, her tongue so dark in her mouth. “Oh, Avarice,” she says finally, “a castle is just a village house with more velvet robes and more ermine. Fine opera glasses ordered from the capital, calfskin ice skates, a chapel with stained glass inlays of his ancestors—”

“But—”

“None of it will be yours. This—” She sweeps her hand at the mirrors, touches one finger to her sharp cheekbone. “This won’t be yours.”

“How do you know?”

Lilé Mar swigs from an evil-looking bottle of fermented ginger. She swishes her skirts, even though there are no men watching. The fire sings behind her. “I know because once there was a woman who tried just what you described. She wasn’t a passive maiden, slopping the buckets waiting for a nobleman to ride by and decide he wanted to grace her with his cock. No, she made spells, she positioned herself by the noble-road, she acted ever so wickedly in winning her prince. But he still had to choose her. And so he owned her.” Lilé Mar stared at the bottle. “She gave him a daughter, one only, and soon he tired of her desires, of her requests, of her zeal for more, of her zeal for anything. These things never last forever. And when it went wrong, well—magic-got beauty doesn’t fade, does it? And people notice. So he had plenty of reason to accuse her of witchcraft. Did you know that you bleed when you burn in fire?”

This fact hangs between them.

And then something knocks on the door, a shudder that reverberates through the room. Lilé Mar stares at her hands, while the voices echo round the house, the loud voices of belonging and exclusion. Avarice recognizes the voice of the boy who threw a rock at Lilé Mar last winter.

They haven’t completed the Little Spells that day, and Lilé Mar is fading towards vulnerability. Avarice can see it in her eyes, the weight of years pressing from behind her brilliant captivating irises, her pupils fading to white. She looks her age, which is very old indeed. She glances around at the mirrors, each of them holding a red-lipped version of herself.

The knocking grows louder, angrier, as though the boy who’s knocking has stopped playing around. “We know you’re in there, witch,” taunts one of the voices.

“If they came in here,” Avarice says.

Lilé Mar snatches a hand mirror from a sideboard, cradles it to her chest. She no longer looks old, but she looks angry. She’s staring at the door as though her eyes alone could split it in two and shatter the boys on the other side. She moves her mouth, as though weighing for some careful potion.

“The thing is,” she says, “this thing they call beauty. It doesn’t have to live in a mirror. It doesn’t even have to live on your face.”

Avarice waits. She sits on the edge of her chair as though she’s balancing on the edge of a knife. “The roses, the icicles, the Little Spells . . . they can only do so much. They can polish my beauty while it lives in the mirrors. But to take it out of the mirrors—or to conjure beauty from someone who doesn’t yet wear it on her face . . . . It takes a bit, it takes something more, shall we say.”

Avarice is silent. She doesn’t have to ask Lilé Mar to explain the path she’s proposing. Avarice has known the world and its teeth, its trades, ever since the forest.

“Come out, come out, Lilé Mar,” calls the voice from the other side of the door again. It’s an adolescent voice, a boy who knows that everything in the village lies under his dominion.

“You know what she needs?” says another voice, trailed by lewd laughter.

Lilé Mar slams her fist onto her table’s burled wood. Spiderthin fissures radiate from where her skin presses into the burled wood.

“Well, Avarice,” she says. “Would you do anything for a handsome nobleman to spy you from behind the hedge?”

Avarice stares at Lilé Mar, at the cracks. She listens to the hot-blooded voices outside. She supposes Lilé Mar already knows the answer.

6. Learn that there is no going back.

Easy enough to wait for true dark, to slip from Lilé Mar’s back door while the boys slouch on the front stoop. This isn’t the first time Lilé Mar has had to storm from her house under the nose of a mob, and it won’t be the last.

It’s autumn; no moon, high winds, leaves round their boots, and the two wool-hooded girls slink between the forest pines and denuded oaks. They bypass the village and creep to the well-paved road with the high-arched bridge, the road where the noblemen always ride. The clatter of horseshoes on stone calls to them as they hurry towards the creek.

They appear on the bridge suddenly, their cloaks obscuring them until it’s too late, until the horse is startled, until it shies up and punches the air with its wild hooves. Maybe the creek below is flooded with autumn rains; maybe a jagged rock teething in the rapids does their work for them. Or maybe it’s shallow as July, and maybe it takes screams, maybe it takes knives, maybe it takes stones in Avarice’s and Lilé Mar’s hands. Either way, there is blood. Either way, it’s smeared on their arms and faces, in patterns of Lilé Mar’s design, and either way Lilé Mar whispers frantically in a language unknown, and the jewel that’s roiled in Avarice since she was a girl screams in her heart.

When it’s done, they rise up, regard each other. They are stained in the heaving dark. Lilé Mar is no longer beautiful: it doesn’t matter what she looks like. In her hands she holds something harder than ice, harder than steel, harder than a jewel, gleaming with every color of the stars that live in the velvet sky. For a second Avarice’s breath catches, as she regards her empty hands, but Lilé Mar points to the ground between Avarice’s boots. An identical shard gleams there; Avarice swoops and picks it up, and it’s hot in her hands.

Then they hear voices, see torches piercing through the trees. And they run.

7. Will you then redeem yourself? Learn to be good?

Two girls running, fleet, in dark cloaks: how easily they can outstrip the confused horses and drunken men from the village who heard the nobleman’s screams. How easily they blend into birches, secret themselves behind the great roots of fallen trees. They circle the village, sprinting across the open plain where the river arcs past the last bitter, broken houses. They reach the cliffs on the other side, and climb. Downcliff they can see Lilé Mar’s house; the mob has traveled there, merged with the boys who were still lounging on the front stoop. They can see the smoke, hear the shatter of mirrors breaking. Lilé Mar holds her shard of throbbing gem-ice to her chest, and she smiles feral.

But then her smile fades and she turns to Avarice. “It’s not too late, you know,” she says. “We can go to another village, far away. I can bind your beauty in a mirror there, reflect it on your face. You can wait behind a hedge, wait to be seen, wait for a prince to come take you away. You can lie beneath him. Maybe you’ll even love him, for a few bright shining years, before you grow old.”

Avarice and Lilé Mar stare at each other, holding their beauty in their hands.

Do you believe that Avarice would fall to her knees and weep, a soft heart manifesting in her after all? That Lilé Mar would smash her ice-shard and crumple to dust with a soft sigh of relief? Or that she would betray Avarice? Or that the villagers would flush them out, reform both or neither? Do you believe that this would be their moment of comeuppance? Do you believe they would be punished? Do you believe they would be saved?

Believe this: Avarice starts laughing, harder than she’s ever laughed before. She laughs until she can’t breathe, and then they climb to the mountaintop, running up the stone switchback paths faster than the fastest horse or man. They reach the top, teeter on granite and snow, and under the bowl of pinprick stars still shining even though those stars died thousands of years ago, the girls hold the beauty in their palms, the whole shining ice-cut mess of it, and in the open they can see it in its entirety for the first time, and it is bright, and terrible, and it is theirs.

Emily B. Cataneo

Emily Cataneo

Emily B. Cataneo is a writer currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from magazines such as The Dark, Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Lackington’s. She was longlisted for the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology in 2016, and is a 2016 graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego. She has a background in journalism and has written for publications such as the Financial Times, the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor, and has reported internationally in England and Germany. She currently works in the nonprofit sector at a feminist historical archive, and in her spare time she enjoys reading about history and embarking on elaborate craft projects.