by Livia Llewellyn
The nails on the heels of Olympe Léon’s boots are the only sounds in the silence of night’s chilly end. Click click click through indigo air, like the metallic beat of a metronome’s righteous heart. As always, when she sees her destination at the end of rue St. Martin, rising black and monolithic against the encroaching country and graying sky, her heart and feet skip beats. She thinks of each single drop of blood, spurting and squirting from the bright flat mouths of the necks, and her small calloused hands and wide bowls to catch them all. Olympe, like all the assistants, is very proud of her training, and very afraid of losing her place, very afraid of sinking back into the city’s bowels, never to return. She never misses a drop.
The building has no name. It never has. Inside the courtyard, men in effluvia-stained coats scurry back and forth to one of the three large guillotines sitting on the worn packed earth. Scientists and doctors and handlers, each carrying out their part of the Forbidden Experiment. Olympe and the young assistants are forbidden to venture beyond the warren of labs and rooms on the ground floor. The rules of their mysterious, tight-knit society haven’t stopped her, but after two years, she has still only seen glimpses of the eight labyrinthine stories that loom in a perfect square around the courtyard, occasionally flashes of people moving up and down the wide staircases, and the constant winking of the stairwell candle flames high above her like trapped stars in the artificial night. Most floors are reserved for research. The top two floors, merged long ago into a single high-walled prison, is where the Forbidden Experiment has taken place for over twenty years now, and only handlers are allowed inside. Thick-limbed men swathed in heavy layers of leather and chain mail, with animal-faced masks and gloves of unyielding steel, unlock the doors to the top floor once every week, and venture into a metal bar-ceilinged warren of broken rooms and passages, untamed flora and small creeping fauna, a facsimile and perversion of the natural world, open to the elements yet contained and confined. And after a time, each handler emerges with a young boy or girl who howls and shits and pisses and bites like a wolf, a child who has had no interaction with the civilized world since birth. Les enfants sauvages. Some are sent to labs on the middle floors for dissection and vivisection and resurrection, some are taken to the basement levels for electrical and mechanical experiments beyond even Olympe’s delicious imagination. And those tagged for the living head experiments are sent to the courtyard, to the guillotines and to her.
Olympe hangs her coat up in one holding room, and slips on her laboratory overcoat in another. She cannot describe how proud she feels when she buttons up the faded, fraying fabric. Out there in the world there are women who read books, who study, who are scientists and doctors as much as they can be, considering women are nothing more than failed men, walking fœtuses who never developed into their full male potential. Olympe, the brothel-raised daughter of a long-dead revolutionary and a long-dead whore, is very aware she will never be one of those women, those forward-thinking academic lights of France’s glorious new future, but at least she is more than what awaits her outside the double steel courtyard gates, and it never fails to thrill her. True, the great men who conduct these incredible experiments tend to recruit uneducated yet comely young women and men like herself, who don’t protest when a suck or two is requested of them, but Olympe is pretty and clean and always willing to comply. And she’s smart. As she grabs her copper bowls and heads into the courtyard, she thinks of the top floor, that mysterious jungle of rooms and wilderness, of the cleverly concealed panopticons inserted throughout the rotting passages and hallways from which the scientists can fully observe the enfants sauvages without interaction or detection. Thanks to her strong fingers and nimble tongue, she’s been in those rooms. She’s seen what goes on in the artificial wild, she’s heard what the scientists say. None of the other assistants have. None of them have ambitions quite like Olympe.
Each slender wood guillotine has a name, and something of its own personality, or so Olympe would like to believe. She’s worked at the bases of La Bécane and Le Massicot, both nimble and effective apparatuses, but her heart and hand belong to the swift and silent blade that descends through the center of Mirabelle. There’s just something about the sharp low whomp of Mirabelle’s heavy mouton and blade rushing through meat and bone that satisfies Olympe in a way nothing else does. Already Le Massicot has been at work—Nana is at the neck of a sauvage, her copper bowl catching the blood which will later be sent rushing through tubes and vials in some candlelit room upstairs. Étienne stands slightly behind her, one large hand on each side of the head as he holds it still and upright for display. Blood trickles and pools around his shoes. Before him three doctors crouch, touching the head lightly with calipers and other devices, taking notes as they speak in low tones. They are measuring the lingering signs of a life taken so swiftly by the blade that the head often fails to acknowledge the body’s demise. Olympe has seen the eyes of severed heads blink, seen lips twitch and heard gasps and sighs. The doctors hold vials up to the mouth to catch escaping vapors, peer through pieces of glass into the gaping neck, slide lances and needles into the jelly eyes. The assistants know better than to ask what knowledge they seek, or what use they intend with it. Later, the living heads, as they are called, will be placed in large glass containers filled with viscous liquids, and join other similar containers on the fourth floor. Olympe has seen that secret, many-shelved room as well, seen the hundreds of surprised faces peering out from their amber-colored shells. She knows a good scientist must have a strong stomach and heart, but she has no real desire to return any time soon.
Mirabelle’s wood frame is dull brown, the same color as Olympe’s carefully pinned and bonneted hair. Lorilleaux is at his usual spot beside her, pulling worn leather gloves onto his long hands. When he clamps his fingers around the sides of each head nestling in Mirabelle’s curved embrace, it’s like watching a monstrous spider clamp down on its prey. An executioner stands on Mirabelle’s opposite side, checking the ropes and mechanisms, giving one last polish to the blade. Sometimes the sun makes its way into the courtyard, bouncing between the windows and shining steel until it hurts to see. This morning the sky is cloudy and dull, and a fine haze floats through the air, a mixture of smoke and ash from the building crematorium and furnace fires that are never extinguished. The smell is particularly hideous today—for several weeks, an illness has steadily made its way through the sauvages, a flesh-destroying disease the doctors have yet to discover the cause of or cure for, a bodily putrefaction that gives an extra tang to the feathery airborne remnants of the dead. It coats the back of their throats and settles in their chests—everyone who works outside coughs, swallows constantly, drinks water and spits out discolored globs of phlegm. Olympe stares at the blanket of clouds rolling across the squared acre of sky over her head. It looks like another courtyard, a cold and lifeless mirror of the one below. She lays her copper bowls out on the long table positioned next to the stone platform on which Mirabelle stands. There is always a small space reserved for her, at the end of all the instruments and equipment the physicians and scientists use. Today is busy—there will be three subjects from the top floor coming to each guillotine. And when Olympe isn’t collecting the blood and handing it over to whoever has reserved it, she will be expected to hand instruments to those who need them, refill pens, provide fresh paper, and occasionally bring out trays of coffee and sweets. In her coat pocket, though, is her own small notebook and pencil. When time allows, she scribbles down her own set of notes, just as any good scientist would, even though she isn’t quite sure how to correctly shape all the letters or spell all the words.
Lorilleaux lets out a quick gasp, and Olympe turns. Something is wrong, she realizes, and her heart skips another beat. Across the courtyard, Mirabelle’s first visitor of the day approaches. A handler has one of the diseased sauvages locked in an iron jacket attached to a long pole at the back, which he uses to push the body forward—a device the handlers created when the creatures are ill, when they don’t want contact with the body. The sauvage lunges and stumbles on twig-thin legs, reaches out with broken-fingered arms, as all the creatures do. But, giant strands of spittle hang from its cracked black lips, and its pallor is that of a month-old corpse, as if every particle of health had been siphoned away. And its movements are slow, Olympe notes; sluggish and confused as if fighting off a fever or waking from the too-long grip of a terrible dream. One low continual moan issues from deep within its ribcage, not the high healthy roar she’s used to hearing. Around the handler and creature, physicians and scientists scurry, already throwing out theories and furiously writing down notes. One of those physicians is Marie François Xavier Bichet, favorite student to the now-deceased founder of their society, Pierre-Joseph Desault—whose own head, it is whispered, now sits blinking and gaping in some forgotten corner of the building. Bichet never appears in the courtyard unless occasion merits, unless some important discovery is about to be made.
Olympe steps to the end of the table and grabs a bowl, hugging it to her chest like a shield as the phalanx of chaos approaches. The blade rises to the top of Mirabelle, and the executioner locks the déclic and release handle into place. Lorilleaux is several meters away, on the opposite side of the table. Olympe likes his gentle disposition, but she’s never seen anyone who can make a living lifting heads from dead bodies yet tremble like a girl at the sight of anything worse than a bruise. He’ll never be a doctor. The handler has unlatched the pole from the metal chest plate, and another handler is removing it from the sauvage, who claws and paws at the man’s mask, trying to scrap through the layers of protection to get at the flesh inside. Seconds later, the man forgotten, it swivels its head like a mad dog, snapping and biting at the soft bits of ash floating around them like dead fireflies. For what reason it does these things, Olympe cannot fathom. The men scribble faster, and Olympe reaches into her pocket, touches her little notebook as a reminder that she’ll do the same thing later, when she has the chance. There is no time now, though: the first handler is maneuvering the creature’s head into Mirabelle’s curved base while the executioner lowers the lunette over the top of its neck. The second handler stands at the back of the bascule, holding the creature’s constantly flailing legs together with one massive hand as he keeps it against the plank with another hand flat at its back. For the first time she can recall, Olympe is revolted at the sight of so much physical corruption and decay. Black and blue discolorations entirely cover the almost skeletal body, and there are perhaps a hundred shallow and deep cuts on the creature, yet no bleeding or discharge. Her lips curl slightly—it can’t be possible, but it looks as if some of the vertebrae are poking out of the skin.
And now the first handler steps back, and the executioner motions them forward. Lorilleaux and Olympe take their places, she with her copper bowl to the side, and Lorilleaux with his spidery hands reaching out to clasp the creature’s jerking head. He makes a wet grunt of disgust as his fingers sink into the filthy tangle of hair and soft skin. For once, Olympe can’t blame him. Everyone waits. Lorilleaux buries his nose into his shoulder and violently shudders. She knows he’s swallowing his own bile. Beneath his grip, the head keeps moving. Finally he lifts his own, and gives a single definitive nod. The sequence of events is practiced and swift. Once Lorilleaux nods, the executioner shouts out as he pulls the lever. Mirabelle’s blade shoots down swift and straight, right through the creature’s neck. Lorilleaux pulls the head away and holds it up for immediate inspection, while Olympe takes one step in and holds her copper bowl under the neck, catching as much of the blood as possible. As she holds the bowl, scientists will take samples from the flow, attempt to measure the rate, thickness and amount of drainage. It’s all clockwork, performed perfectly by them every day without fail for three years. Nothing will go wrong.
Lorilleaux gives his nod. The executioner shouts out, and the head in Lorilleaux’s grasp twists. The blade comes down and severs the neck—Lorilleaux drops the head, whipping away his hands as he shouts in pain. The head bounces down onto Olympe’s feet, and instinctively, she drops her bowl and reaches down to grab it, her fingers outstretched like she’s seen Lorilleaux’s a thousand times. As her hands move down, the head turns: suddenly, there is pain, unlike anything she has felt before. An animal roar erupts from her throat, and she raises her arm, the head still attached, its teeth moving back and forth across her fingers like a miniature saw. She can feel the blood in her veins grow cold, the world turn black at the edges, and everything grow dull and murky and slow. Men surround her, using the calipers and any other instrument they can find to pry the horrible object from her body. And then it is over, and the head is gone. Olympe raises her hand to her face, steaming rivulets of red running down her palm and disappearing in the sleeves of her clothes. One finger is crooked, broken and almost torn in half at the knuckle. When she speaks, it’s as if the timorous, child-like words are coming from any place other than her mouth.
—I’ve been bit.
Activity at the other guillotines has ceased. Olympe finds Nana at her side, guiding her across the eerily silenced courtyard to the holding rooms. Lorilleaux runs ahead, his blood-spattered boots echoing back and forth between the stone walls. The air feels too warm, and the ash, the ever-constant smell of burning flesh, the thick scratch at the back of her mouth—Olympe halts, bends over, and vomits. Bits of black spatter against her boots. A frisson of terror washes through her. Those black clots are her blood, darkened from sitting in her stomach for hours as it curdled into something else. Nana waits until she’s finished, then guides her forward again, through the holding rooms and into a corner of a makeshift medical lab, where a physician is already bandaging up a sobbing Lorilleaux. He’ll never be anything more than an assistant. He can’t handle danger or pain. Olympe sits down, props her elbow upright against the table, and studies her finger. Already the edges of the wound are drying out, cracking slightly. Moistening a rag with her spittle, she wipes the blood away and leans in, squinting. A low moan escapes her lips, barely a feather’s breath. Tiny veins of blue and black thread away from the edges of the bite marks, a network that spreads as she watches, imperceptibly slow but sure. Around the lines, the flesh blossoms in a soft pale gray. Olympe grabs a roll of clean linen and quickly begins wrapping her hand. The doctor attending Lorilleaux doesn’t protest. They all know how hard she works, how quick and smart she is. Olympe takes care of herself. Several tears drop onto the cream fabric as she pins the ends tight, then rolls down her stained overcoat sleeve. She’ll be fine, she tells herself as she rises from her seat, ignoring Nana’s steady hand. She’s going to go far.
After a few sips of water, Olympe makes her way outside and back across the courtyard to Mirabelle. Already the blood has been washed away with buckets of scalding water that sends steam curling into the air, and the remaining assistants and doctors are placing equipment into straw-filled barrows to be wheeled inside. The tracks of another wheelbarrow lead to the doors at the rear of the courtyard, where the remains will be sent first to the morgue, and then, in pieces, to other labs on other floors. Bichet and a group of the older scientists gather at the far end of the table, staring at a liquid-filled amber container set at its edge. Hair floats in the liquid like seaweed. Normally Olympe wouldn’t dare approach these important men, who know her only as a pair of disembodied hands holding a blood-filled copper bowl. She sidles along the table, her uninjured hand touching the edge casually, as if it’s not necessary to keep her balance. When she gets to the edge of the group, Bichet straightens, and waves her closer. The men move aside: they’re making way for her. Little trickles of sweat run down the sides of her face. It feels like her body is pushing all the fluids out, squeezing out every last drop of moisture, to make room for the gray blossoms and the black veins.
Bichet reaches out and grabs the top of the container, twisting it around with his nimble surgeon’s hands. Olympe crouches down until her chin rests on the tabletop, as though she were five again. Seaweed waves of dark hair make way for a face, bruised and contorted. The eyes are clouded over but open, and they blink, and they see Olympe. Tête vivante, someone whispers. Thick globs of blood stick to its lips, preserved by the fluid. Some of that blood is hers. A part of her will always be in that jar, trapped between the lips of something that is not dead or alive. The mouth opens in a soundless cry, and a piece of tooth floats out, disappearing in the waving hair. Olympe turns and runs from the table stumbling across the courtyard back to the holding rooms. Behind her, loud laughter floats and tumbles and mixes with the snowy crematory ash.
Time and the day and the ashes in the air sift past Olympe in an increasing haze of detachment and low-grade pain. She hovers near the door of the holding room, watching the handlers walk to and fro with their living cargo. None of the sauvages that they take to the guillotines are ill, as far as she can tell. Men walk back and forth between the assistants, jars and dishes and bowls filling and emptying. Heads, feet, bones, blood. A farmer’s market of grotesqueries and abominations. And in the distance the fires eat away at the remains, vomiting out the bits onto their heads. She stares into the distance. Her face is somewhere else. She can’t feel her lips. Everyone in the courtyard coughs, hocks, spits. Something happened today that she should be weeping about, but she can’t remember. She holds up her bandaged hand. The nails are black as beaded jet. They look oddly fetching.
Light gray flakes float around and against her skin. A lone idea flares to life in her mind. It’s the ash. They got sick, all of them, every person and sauvage in the building, from the airborne remains of the burning dead. Olympe shivers hot and cold with the incredible scientific significance of her thoughts. All those smart men in the building, and she alone knows. She’s figured it out. Life into death, into life, into death. Ouroborus. That’s what the—
Nana is helping her into her scarf and coat. Is the day over already? It feels as if she only just arrived. Beyond the doors, the courtyard is pitch black, silent until tomorrow morning when the blades spring back to life. Life. Something about life. Someone walks her through the thick double gates. His face is familiar, plump and delicious. Red wet fruit in a desert. Outside, the world is quiet and calm. She hears the muted roar of the furnace far behind her, all the machinery hidden within the building that keeps it alive to gobble up all in the name of Science. Rue St. Martin lies before her like a dried-up river, pointing a dim, insurmountable way back into Paris proper. Lights twinkle overhead in the black of night, tumble down and brush against her face. Olympe sighs. She used to remember what those are. She breathes them in as she drags her feet down the raggedy sides of the road.
A lamp post or tree trunk is at her back. When did she stop walking and sit down? The night is cold. She should feel it, but she doesn’t. She should care, but.
She is going to go far.
It was the bite, and the ash.
Olympe wills her numb fingers to begin a laborious creep through the layers of fabric, toward her notebook and pencil, though she cannot feel their progress or lack thereof. No matter, she must somehow write down her scientific observations and present them to the others in the morning, before the disease spreads further. This knowledge will be the society’s salvation, its debridement, and her way out. Olympe will be taken seriously, taken under wing. Respect, at last. She will become a scholar, a doctor, a brilliant beacon of light and an example to all women of France. She stares down. Her hand is a hand that is not her hand and it is all the way on the other side of Paris or perhaps even the world and she does not know what it is at all or what it holds. At the quiet end of the street, the building stands tall and funereal against scrabbly trees and darkling sky. The river of Time rushes steadily into and through her, filling her up until all she sees and feels and hears is a great slow blanket of nothingness: and everything stops.
Disconnected images well up into her mind, images of each silky shining drop of blood out there in the dark, spurting and squirting from the bright flat mouths of open necks, and her small calloused hands and the wide bowl of her mouth to catch them all. Warm red, squirming and streaming behind the outlines of the shapes so rapidly approaching her. Bright red, to push the gray of the world away.
About the Author
Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror and erotica. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Subterranean, Nightmare Magazine, and Postscripts; and her short story collection Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. Her website is at www.liviallewellyn.com, where she lists all her current works-in-progress and upcoming publications.
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.