The Bruise Around the Wound
by Rana Eros
Written for loathlylady for Yuletide 2008. Betaed by Eliza and Phoebe, and inspired by Angela Carter.
This is the story Aubergine tells Mr. Calloway: her mother was an Englishwoman, very rich and fashionable. After a scandalously public broken engagement, her mother's mother suggested a holiday in India. Her mother went, acquired a remote and abandoned palace through some shady dealings, stocked it with poor locals, and proceeded to become a hermit. She took up with one of the servant boys, who was killed by a maneater before their child was born. Heartbroken, Aubergine's mother determined she would not lose her daughter too, so she had a tower built in the jungle near her estate, and locked Aubergine up in it.
"And how did you escape?" Mr. Calloway asks over the cracked cups of black tea Madame Dorgosky's served them both.
"When my hair was long enough, I cut it off and braided it into a rope," Aubergine says. She makes sure to hold his gaze as she says it, though she doubts the disconcerting effect of her eyes is entirely necessary. He doesn't want the truth, just a basis on which to build the advertisements for his latest attraction.
"Mmm," Mr. Calloway says, and strokes one of his long, ginger mustaches. Then he sets his teacup down and leans forward. "Very well, Miss P. Let's draw up a contract."
Aubergine finishes her own tea. Madame Dorgosky snatches the cup away before it makes contact with the saucer, scowls into it with heavily kohled eyes. "Thorns and brambles. Very bad."
Madame Dorgosky's daughter is Tiny Tilly, the current main attraction of Calloway's Calamitous Creatures and Catastrophical Curiosities. Aubergine has seen her show. Tiny Tilly is perhaps the size of a large man's thumb, exquisitely beautiful, and possessed of a booming, operatic soprano of a voice. She perches in an acrobat's swing atop a macaw, and they sing duets as he flies her through the air, both of them passing through rings of fire and Tilly doing handstands, splits, spins, and somersaults.
The macaw is primarily blue, which is why Aubergine was able to make herself stay until the end, when Tiny Tilly launched herself from the macaw's back, and dove into an iris, which closed up around her. The macaw had picked up the iris, then flown over the audience and dropped it right above Aubergine's head.
"For the most beautiful of our spectators!" the macaw cried, before flying back into its cage. Everyone stared as Aubergine sniffed the iris, but Tiny Tilly was nowhere to be seen.
The iris smelled of cheap paper. When Aubergine stepped out of the tent, it dissolved into a heavy card which read, "Visit Madame Dorgosky's. Mr. Calloway will speak to you there."
Aubergine would be inclined to tell Madame Dorgosky that there's nothing to worry about, that she personally can't carry a tune and the novelty of her coloring will wear off soon enough and her own macaw is long dead, but she wonders if Tilly is here of her own free will and says nothing. Perhaps Tilly agreed to carry the message because this is her chance to make an escape. Aubergine won't deny it, if so.
The contract she signs will not, Aubergine's certain, hold up in any court of law, but it doesn't matter. Signing it is still an indication of her willingness to do business with Mr. Calloway according to his preferences, and she has ways of ensuring he'll abide by her conditions.
She insists on shaking his hand after, and she can tell he wonders what's under her glove. She is the usual shape, her visible skin the normal texture, even if the color is lurid. Her hair, though, her brows and lashes make people doubt. It only takes a little deformity and their imaginations run wild. She's learned this, though she's also learned they prefer a beautiful basis for such fancies. There are stranger sights here than herself or Tiny Tilly; too strange. Mr. Calloway wants to charge top dollar for the sight of Aubergine, and for that he must ensure the sight is not too queer.
She'll keep the gloves on for performances. Her hands are four-fingered, after a fashion, single-thumbed, the palms covered with scarred skin. The thorns, though, might upset patrons.
This is the story Aubergine thinks Mr. Calloway believes: her mother was a poppy eater, and ate the wrong sort while expecting.
This is the story the barker calls out when she's joined Calloway's: "Her mother was an enchanted rose! Her father was a prince of a lost kingdom in far India! She escaped forced marriage to the evil vizier who set fire to her mother's garden and murdered her father! Now she lives in exile, half-plant, half-woman! The beautiful, the exotic Aubergine!"
In the strange, steady glow of the electric lights in her tent, buds red as heart's blood burst from her mouth, her hair. They darken as they bloom, a rich, obscene purple. They open and they wilt in the space of a half-hour show, larger and more beautiful than the fruits of any hothouse.
Her foliage remains the same fierce green, bright as plumage.
She makes friends with Tilly, who ran away once, and doesn't speak of the experience.
"It's not so bad here," Tilly says after they've closed the gate for the night. "Got my own wagon, built special for me, and Mum keeps me in nice clothes. And nobody tries to take Tom away."
Tom is the macaw. He's from the Amazon, and sometimes he and Tilly speak to each other in a language that might be his native tongue. Sometimes they sing, and Aubergine closes her eyes, as though that will block out the longing she hears in both voices.
"I may not be human," Tota said to her just before he died, "but I still want things."
This is the first story her mother told her: if she stayed in the tower, she would never want for anything. If she left it, she would die.
"This is where I planted you," her mother said, "and this is where you grew. There are thorns at the bottom, and you want to avoid those."
That was before the curse. Golden-skinned, dark-haired, Aubergine had smiled at her mother. Her mother had laughed, given her silks to match her jade eyes, jewelled combs to gleam the color of her skin in the river of her hair, so long it wound around the room thrice, with enough at the end to pile on the balcony and act as a rope when her mother wanted to come up into the tower to see her. Her mother had laughed.
That was before.
Even after the crowds even out, Madame Dorgosky doesn't like Aubergine. Madame Dorgosky doesn't like Tom, either, and Aubergine's not sure how much of that is because Tilly prefers their company to her mother's, or how much Tilly prefers their company because her mother doesn't like them. It's hardly a worthy thought after she's heard the way Tilly and Tom sing to each other, but then, how many options do either of them have?
"I've brought you a present," her mother said, holding up the green-plumed bird. "His name is Tota, and you may release him at sunrise every day, and he'll come back to you at sunset to tell you what he's seen and heard."
"Is he enchanted, then?" Aubergine asked, delighted at how his feathers matched her sari.
"Yes, of course."
"Is he really a man?" Aubergine didn't mean to ask that, and the smile on her mother's face vanished.
"Better for both of you that he is not."
This is the second story her mother tells her: her father was beautiful, faithless, and stupid. He left her mother's bed to sport with a servant girl in the river, caught a fever, and died in agony, boils and open sores all over his skin.
"That's what men are," her mother said, stroking Tota's wing lightly. "That's what they deserve. Be glad you've never had to deal with them."
After a month, Mr. Calloway invites Aubergine into his bed. They've just settled outside a new town, and Aubergine is airing out her wardrobe. She stares at him after the words leave his mouth, then lifts her right hand and slowly, carefully removes the glove with her left. The scars are shiny, raised patches that look strikingly like the skin of her namesake, but she knows it's the thorns that have Mr. Calloway's attention, thorns instead of fingers, black, twisted, thick as thorns get on plants allowed to grow wild in the jungle.
He doesn't ask again, but Vincent the Pincushion steals up to her door later that night.
"Please," he says, his eyes wide and dark with desire. "Please."
Aubergine thinks of her mother screaming and shrieking, first in rage, then in mortal pain. She thinks of huge purple blossoms, the smooth white sides of the tower, the glitter of filigreed windows and sway of sheer drapes. She thinks of the richness of every spice of the world, the sweetness of every fruit, the heaviness of rare books, the scent of costly perfumes. She thinks of oils and rouges, veils and clips and pins. She thinks of skins and furs and feathers.
She thinks of green feathers, sticky with red, red blood.
"I want," Tota said, and gave her his heart, bleeding out on the thorns below her tower.
This is the story Tota told her: he remembered the richness of earth, the sweetness of water, the warmth of the sun. He remembered blooming and stabbing and drawing blood into his stalks. He remembered the sudden, dizzying shock of being uprooted, being confined into a body that craved the sky, hungered for solid things, saw and heard and tasted in new ways. He remembered the first time he bled.
"If you leave this tower, you might bleed," he said. "You might live."
"I am living," she argued. He only blinked at her with eyes black as the tips of thorns. "Bleeding's not living."
"Leave this tower," he said, "and you might know."
"Will you come with me?" She tried to smile as she asked, but she felt squeezed by the tower, smothered in riches, and below she heard her mother calling for her hair. "Do you want to?"
"I want," Tota said, before her mother came up.
"I want," she said to her mother, and her mother grabbed for her. Tota cried out, flew between them, feathers bright in the gold of the air. Aubergine saw his claws curl in as he drove for her mother's face, and then her mother answered his cry with one of her own, swung her hand to send him tumbling. Aubergine reached out too late to stop his rapid descent. The thorns and blossoms caught him, tore him apart, as though he'd never been one of their own.
Or perhaps, perhaps as though he had always been.
Aubergine sets the thorns lightly against Vincent's chest, punctures him just enough to bleed him. Her hair rustles. In her mind's eye, she can see him wrapped up in green, all the blood squeezing out. He closes his eyes and moans softly.
"Please," he says again, and wets his lips. "I want...."
She pulls back. "This is all I can give you."
She closes the door between them, lifts her shaking hands to lick at the blood as she waits for a knock. Instead, a slow breath sighs into the keyhole, and Vincent says, "I'll come again tomorrow night."
This is the third story her mother told her: "Your real mother was just a servant, lazy and selfish! I took her in, and she ate my food and wore my clothes and told me she loved me, and then she left me with a squalling baby! All because she didn't like her husband, and the child she carried wasn't his!"
Aubergine let the silence stretch after her mother's outburst, unbroken by the rustle of wings, the soft shuffle of claws. Her mother had not reached for her again after Tota's intercession. Maybe her mother had never meant to reach for her.
She asked calmly, "And my father?"
"Oh, he was even better! He came to me after she left, came and seduced me, then followed after her! That maneater served him right!"
"Like the thorns served Tota?"
"He wanted to keep you from me!"
"He wanted to leave with me. I wanted that."
Aubergine's mother turned as purple as her daughter's name, then raised one sharp-nailed finger and pointed. "You--"
"I want out," Aubergine said. "I want you to leave."
"You," her mother managed again, and Aubergine pounced, her hair tugging against her scalp, her eyes full of the image of blood shining on the thorns.
"I want to leave you! I want--"
Her mother caught at her hair as they struggled together, hacked at it, cursed her to grow vines instead, of the sort that never grew on the tower, so that Aubergine could never escape. Her mother cursed her to forever be tangled with the thorns at the foot of the tower, but she could almost hear Tota say to her that was not the same as cursing her to stay.
It was a foolish curse. Aubergine saw the realization in her mother's eyes just before she stabbed her mother through with her transformed hands. She'd had to wrap them up in silk in order to climb down her hair, and she'd nearly lost her hold and fallen a dozen times. She might have let go, with Tota waiting below, but she didn't think he'd accept her blood, didn't think he'd accept the bottom of the tower as leaving it, didn't think he'd find dying to be living, and the vines of her hair didn't grow on the tower.
She cut her hands on his thorns before she left, stripped his blooms and ate them as she set foot, for the first time, into the jungle. They were flavored with his blood, her mother's, hers. They were purple as her skin, and their leaves and stems were green, green.
"I want," she murmured to each petal, then cut it with her teeth.
This is the story she never tells.