This story is by Bonnie Johnston and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was in the final stage of my novitiate, and this would be my last task before becoming a full member of the Society. You need to confront the Bearded Lady, my Teachers told me. She would be in the back, near the bar where the music wasn’t as loud. But they also told me my newfound resolve would be tested for the old temptations would pull hard.
I found their warnings to be true, even before I had gained entrance. I passed unnoticed by the supplicants as they lined the sidewalks waiting for entry, “The Snow Queen Cabaret” glowed in silver neon above their adorned heads. I gazed downwards and marked my passage by noting their footwear: raven-jawed stilettos, silver glittering platforms and lace-up boots that narrowed so achingly vulnerable at the ankle before mounting the calf. With my own feet shod in the Society’s uniform buckskin sandals, I remembered my gratitude to them for accepting me into their fold. The Society’s path would bring me peace, they promised. Liberation came from within. But now, during this final test, I was unsure how much to reveal of myself, for in this place I would be most vulnerable. And to her, when I found her, I feared what I would say, what I would reveal, and how she would react.
Once inside, the music throbbed and reverberated off the walls. I gasped for air inside my woolen cloak and head scarves. Silver lights cut the darkness, sparkling like fragments of ice and crystal, where the splinters of the troll’s mirror lined the walls and ceiling. And everywhere the frenetic hum of bodies pulsed. The majority wore accessories that referred to the origins of such an establishment: leather military hats, gloves, belts, and collars; the allure of black leather der Kommandant. But there were others, some of whom had found their absolute in the yearning to be two dimensional, where their hair was straightened flat, string secured flat fabric remnants across flat chests, and flat thongs bisected flat asses.
A man butted in front of me.
“This is no place for gawkers and tourists.”
The ends of my cloak crumpled into snug rolls in my hands. I pulled away from him, fearing he would pull off my scarf.
“Let her be,” a woman said, appearing beside him. “She’s another shy one.”
She tugged me by my arm to her side.
I should have bowed by head and averted her kind gaze. But the enchantment gripped so suddenly: cardioid extensions fashioned her eyes, like exploding nebula, and her diaphanous face, gossamer, so that her nose and mouth disappeared into the illusion. The desire stirred inside of me, a grub still twisting while impaled on a hook. At that moment I wanted to be like her. Rip off these rough fibres, shed these orthopaedic sandals, and writhe to the beats.
She nodded her head, encouraging me.
“Take your time, honey.”
She released me with a small shove.
I penetrated deeper into the jumble of skin. My own skin sweat underneath cloak and skirts, stockings and scarves. The old yearnings stirred: the pleasure of forgiving polyester Ponte and creamy cookie-scented concealer, the satisfying starvation jags. And the pride of winning the approving gaze. But also, my final arrest at the Holt Renfrew cosmetics counter which tipped off the discovery of the warehouse full of counterfeits, the vials, the boxes of Botox. My whole network imploded. Neither my associates nor those whose bodies depended on me wanted to know me. I was alone again, until the Society accepted me.
I pushed aside the dancing bodies that blocked my path and there she sat at a table next to the bar. The red silk veil covered her head, a remnant of her past with that bastard, the Rake.
Safely shrouded, I sat in the opposite chair. But she didn’t move. I drew my mouth close to her veil.
“I have come to seek your wisdom.”
She remained immobile.
Her floor-length emerald gown and matching tasseled shawl shone in the pulsing lights. Dark moles with black hairs splattered across her décolletage. Her arms rippled with muscle and fat. She wore long white lace gloves, her hands folded on her lap. A very fine silver chain looped her wrist and then dropped to the floor where it locked onto the leg of her chair. My Teachers told me to rescue her if I had the opportunity. This chain would be easy to break if she was willing.
She was both elegant and monstrous. Next to her, the bodies of the Cabaret, scraped clean and emotionless, only paraded clinical nudity. I caught my reflection in the opposite wall’s mirror. How superior I was, and, like her, able to resist.
Then I remembered to take the coins out of my satchel and let them tinkle on the tabletop. But she didn’t move. A waiter wearing a loincloth appeared tableside. He took the coins and pointed to her veil.
The moment I slipped the veil off, she surged, animated, her face alight.
“I had this dress made for me during my Turkish days. The casinos in Vienna and Geneva would never admit anyone lesser dressed.”
She flashed her long jewel-handled knife that hung from a narrow gold belt.
“From when I used to be a Robber. I lost my daughter then. Such a head-strong girl. How I spoiled her! When that little Gerda arrived, my little love turned up her nose at our life as freedom-loving outlaws. I should have eaten that Gerda when I had the chance. But my little Robber Maiden would not hear of it.”
She clutched her breast and shook her head.
“It wasn’t good enough to live free in the forest, eating roasted hare and having all the animals in the forest to talk to. Including a reindeer. No. Instead she stole my golden carriage and ran away to the city.”
She punched the air at the end of each sentence with her white lace gloves. The hair of her arms and armpits was gray, and gray streaked her trimmed beard and at her temples and wove the swathes of black hair that spilled past her shoulders.
“I missed her so dearly. I left the Robbers and the castle and sought her in the city. But I never found her. For a long time, I sat amongst the dumpsters and backdoor deliveries. I couldn’t go back to the forest. And then one day a little man offered me a job.”
She was a giant; physical coercion would not work if I were to try to liberate her. And I would have to break that chain.
“Circus Narcissus was the biggest, the most spectacular. The sights I have seen. The places I have gone. I grew much attached to the strong man.”
Her laugh was lewd.
“And then the day came when the Circus had no need of me. It was the animals the audiences wanted, the clowns, the horses. All that gymnastics.”
The onset of a headache tugged at my temples. On and on she went, her stories gushed from her busy bright red mouth nestled amid her silver and black beard.
“This place is okay. It pays for my comforts. I’ve got my drink and I’ve got my audience. The females laugh and feel better about themselves. The few males who sit with me don’t make a sound. They sit twisted in a knot and peel away gasping. But there is the odd one who flatters me so much I can’t resist his promises of pleasure.”
She leaned in close again. “The man who is strong enough for a woman like me knows how to deliver.”
She reached a gloved hand forward and patted my forearm. For the first time, her eyes fixed on me.
“But you’re not one of them.”
I mentioned the name of the Society.
“They mean well, dear. But the beaver is compelled to chew, isn’t she? She doesn’t stay hidden away in her lodge.”
I breathed my courage. I removed my scarves.
She pulled back and I feared that she would reach for the knife. But she pursed her red mouth and then grinned a horrible grin.
“You stole my golden carriage. You little thief. You owe me!”
I remained detached, just as the Society had taught me. At least she didn’t try to tweak my nose so that it turned both red and blue, like she used to do.
I reached for the chain, ready to yank it hard. But her hand caught mine in a steel grip and pushed back.
“Go back to them if you love them so much. Leave me in peace.”
And then she said no more.
The waiter came over and replaced the veil over her now silent and still body.
“Let me come back,” I lied.
Pushing past the bodies towards the exit of the Cabaret, I drew my scarves across my own beard once more.