PseudoPod 842: Palette
All of the ingredients for the woman’s makeup recipes are accurate for medieval Austria.
By J.L. Kiefer
The line etched across her forehead, deep as a vein, as if a string had been stretched against the skin. She rubbed it, but it would not erase; her young elastic skin would not uncrease.
It remained the next morning, deeper, darker. Fraying at the edges with little bird’s claws. She examined it in her miniature hand mirror. It stretched the length of her index finger. She scratched her nail across it, in the groove, the only mar of her beauty. But she could fix it.
Every Saturday, she stirred the lead powder into rosewater. When it thickened into a dough, she would roll it into little pills and store them in a jar. She followed a recipe one of the nurses in the lady’s estate had taught her when she had dropped off a swath of intricate fabric. Each morning she would dissolve one of these into more rosewater until it thinned back into a paste she could spread across her skin. This morning she poured less rosewater, the white paste thick enough to cake, to fill in the crack across her forehead like plaster, the bloodless ivory reaching up to her hairline. Onto her cheeks and lips, she rubbed bryony until they swelled, bright crimson. If she’d recently boiled Brazilwood and mixed in the alum to create a maroon dye for her yarn, she might dip her fingers into the cooling pot and swipe the color across her skin.
The girl had always been known for her beauty and for her madman concoctions, the lead paste long-lasting into the night, when she would remove it with yet more rosewater. Her beauty had been her obsession since she was a child, when her mother had taken her on a delivery to the manor, the large stone structure that loomed over the rest of the village like a giant boot about to stomp and trample. Her mother carted the fabric, one that had taken her months to complete. Washing the raw wool. Rubbing her fingertips into angry welts spinning the yarn. Blooming blisters over the welts boiling the dye. Draining the boils while weaving the fabric, the needle growing slick and sticky. Along the edges were vined flowers which were mirrored in the opposing color on the back side of the bolt. A little dot of deep scarlet nestled against the wool. It had seeped into the only bit undyed, a dribble of her mother’s own blood, diluted and mixed with the blister’s serum when the needle had slipped and jabbed past the bag at the end of her fingers.
Her mother had taken her, then eight years old, to the manor to make the delivery and collect the money. It was some unusual arrangement with the lady, who wished to inspect the fabric before purchasing, but who could not be bothered to trek into the village herself. Just a child, the girl felt as though she were being swallowed as she followed her mother into the foyer, each little stone set into the wall like a chipped and rotten tooth. The expansive mouth of the manor house dissipated from her mind when the lady entered. The girl’s breath caught in her throat. The lady’s dress flowed along the floor as if she hovered inches above the stone. Her face was pure white. Paler than anything the young child had ever seen, the stark expanse led all the way up to the high hairline along the top of her skull. The effect was broken only by little spots of rouge on her cheekbones and lips.
The lady’s uncalloused fingers petted the fabric. Her lips, dark as blood, twitched into a scowl when she lifted her head and caught a glimpse of the woman who wove the fabric, the woman with hair matted into nests, with fingers cobbled into thick knobs of skin and scabs. The lady’s fingers jumped from the fabric and her nurse gathered it, scurrying away at her command to have it cleaned.
The girl vowed to never receive such a scowl. She would remain perfect and porcelain—and hide her own wrecked hands inside gloves.
Before she had been taught how to craft the makeup by one of the lady’s nurses, before she could source all the little ingredients needed to paint her face, the lead, the orpiment, the quicklime and quicksilver, she would sneak into her mother’s workshop. She searched for one of the long threading needles, and she would prick her fingers, a singular dot on the pads, letting out blood enough to leave her face ghostly.
Once her mother caught her, hands wet with her own blood, she pried the long needle out of her daughter’s fingers. Then she locked the thin rods away in a wooden chest. Her mother would unlock it only during working hours, only when she needed to retrieve the needles to sew, the long, sharp things harvested and the box relocked. But the girl had discovered a stray needle on the floor. She poked it into the hem of her skirt. Each morning before dawn, she pushed it beneath her skin, its pointy fang ripping between the wrinkles on her palm or the ridges on her fingertips. It let out the blood like a fountain, the deep crimson bubbling to the surface. An old trick to leave her face as she desired—a colorless palette with ruddy cheeks. A poor comparison to the beauty of the lady, but it would suffice. Her fingertips had healed, now only letting out blood when the needle strayed, when it was a true accident.
Now, the crease on her face pulsed beneath her mask, and when she wiped away its cover, it had borne a twin. A second fat wrinkle stretched across the space above her eyes.
In the passing days, the marks multiplied as if her skin had been folded and a hot iron applied: tiny scars spanned from the edges of her eyes and at the corners of her lips; pockmarks lined her cheeks, like little craters scooped away. Soon, she applied her first layer of paste blind, not lifting the little round mirror until it could at least dampen the effect, could erase the years her face had inexplicably gained. Soon she dissolved three or more of the lead balls each morning. But her art was exquisite, as precise as her fabric. With a practiced hand, she filled in the cracks, the scars, the dimples, the ever-deepening craters.
Pain bloomed beneath her perfect mask. It became a throbbing metronome while she twisted raw wool into strands thin as web, to be dyed and then woven into an intricate fabric for the lady of the village. This commission would feed her for a full year, and, she hoped, would fashion a grand gown or cape that would inspire more from the upper echelons of the kingdom. With a screw of her neck, a wetness pooled against her skin. Beneath the lead shield, there was a sudden pop against the top of her cheekbone where she’d rubbed the bryony and honey to redden. A sharp agony invaded the spot, as if a rogue dog had clamped its wet teeth into her face. She slapped her hand over it, sure that the wet, the pus, was eating the lead, leaving a dark blemish. She abandoned her wool, her workshop. Her mask was eroding. She could feel it dissolving as she stomped up the stairs to her bedroom.
The spot seemed to vibrate, the angry rash tinged at the edges with green. When she wiped at her skin, thick swaths of the makeup fell away like an avalanche, caked by sweat. A pustule had broken. The thin membrane still cupped the yellow mucus in a sack, having ripped at the top, the little bag drooping against a wrinkle. Its exposed innards screamed with invisible daggers, and when she pushed her hand mirror up close, she could see the raw, rotten skin inside the boil writhe and squirm, pucker.
Soon a whole crop of these blisters freckled her face. A row dotted her forehead, swelling and expanding with sticky liquid overnight. In the morning, sunlight piercing through the window, she pricked each one with a sharp needle. Each expelled its glossy innards, deflating into concave redness that she could fill with lead, little wet mouths she could stuff with so much of it that they’d choke.
By the third day of pricking and emptying and refilling, she’d stopped removing the powder entirely. She’d stopped uncovering her ruined face. Instead, she caked on more of the lead. Her features blurred to the outside world while her skin writhed underneath, while it simmered and throbbed, her pores ballooning with milky pus until they flattened beneath the stiff mask, until they had no choice but to break and burn and further plaster the lead to themselves. While she wove on the loom, the thin threads transforming to delicate roses, her skin slithered. Raw boils emitted muffled screams. Tendons and stringy muscle twitched as if her skin had melted, as if it had dissolved entirely into the lead.
The thick paste surrounded her eyes, leaving a pinprick through which to see the tiny needle. She bobbed it through the long cords strung vertically. Then she pushed it straight into the middle finger of her opposing hand, the sharp tip sliding cleanly between her nail and flesh. The automatic jerk to her mouth splattered not only her crisp mask but the work in front of her, the blood worming its way deep into the thread, the pink rose now wilting.
The fourth day, she hovered over a hot pot of dye, agitating it with the long handle of a wooden spoon. She had to remake what she’d snipped away after bandaging her finger. The operation had become so practiced that she could dodge the steam and spittle of the pot with precise motions, knowing exactly the moment the turmoil of pink would overflow, would throw daggers up towards her pristine face.
A ruckus clattered at the edge of the street, the boisterous sound smashing into her shop, hovering above the sloshing of the dye. A street festival full of fools, each jester holding a papier-mâché face over their own, blank slates with slits for eyes—the season’s excess harvest an excuse to celebrate with copious ale and chaos. Before she could close up her shop to their anarchy, the drunk, faceless jesters poured into it, their grimy fingers plucking at the taut strings of her loom, snapping them and the roses in their crazed reverie, grinding clay into her skeins, clanging her tools to the ground.
In her sprint towards their commotion, a single drop of pink careened into her cheek, sizzling into the thick lead, a little eroding pond in the pale sand. But her own screams to stop were buried beneath their tumult and met with jest, with the masked figures pulling on her wrists, begging her out into the street as one of them.
As if a taut cord stretched from her fingers up her arm, around her elbow, through the stringy pieces of her neck, up to her chin, the fool’s touch ricocheted up and vibrated through her perfect face, leaving a hairline crack. One more jolt and the crack fissured. A porcelain chunk shattered against the ground, sending up a cloud of chalk dust.
The exposed skin along her jaw wriggled as if on fire.
The hand pulling at her wrist became a limp hunk of meat. The eyes beneath the fool’s mask widened before she slapped her hand over the spot. It tingled as though ticks crawled and wormed their way across the raw flesh.
She dashed inside, up the stairs, past more fools dirtying her wares, swaying and toppling the loom holding her magnum opus in their drunken reverie. The daggering pain of incoming air spread its tendrils across her face. The fissure sent out more cracks like a lightning bolt. A line of fire erupted across the bridge of her nose and over her other cheek, one million tiny screaming mouths across her forehead as more pieces tumbled away. An explosion of white sprang from the steps, each piece disintegrating upon impact. By the time she reached her bedroom, the entire thing had fallen away.
Now bare, her skin screeched with the sensation of pinpricks, as if all of the needles from her shop had flown up the stairs and straight through her cheeks, the tips digging between her teeth, poking at her gums. It felt like a pair of them, the curved ones, had slipped underneath her eyelids, the metal sliding up and over her eyeball, piercing behind them with such pain that her vision blurred. Feverishly, she mixed the lead with the rosewater. The jar of the little balls skittered, the glass smashing against the floor. She pressed the paste against her skin, rubbing it with her fingers, but something was wrong. As she dabbed the paste on, the skin stuck to her fingertips. The whole thing slid away in a rotten sheet, dotted with holes like moth-eaten fabric. It fell to the table in front of her, green and purple still milky from the lead.
A drip of blood splattered across what had been the skin of her forehead.
Another rained onto the former bridge of her nose.
Now, the stringy muscles and tendons exposed and throbbing, the pain howled and ricocheted through her entire body, a paralyzing zing, which she choked with lead, finding a stray ball of it on the corner of the table and pushing it into the pulp of her face until the sharp pitch inside her skull muffled, until she’d created a new skin, pink with blood. She covered it with more lead—she wouldn’t let her face be ruined like her unfinished, ripped fabric.
She inhaled. Her beauty was restored. The pain dulled to a quiet throb. She lifted the little mirror to check—clean ivory with just a hint of burgundy at her cheeks and lips. Before she moved to return to her shop, to clean up the remnants of her former face and the fool’s dirt from her yarn and loom, the tatters of her work, she spied it.
The welt on her wrist, the size of a pfennig.
It boiled beneath its thin lid, tumultuous as an ocean in a storm.
She reached for the small needle she kept upstairs and discovered another blemish on her thumb filled with green pus, full to bursting, the sheath stretched taut. And still, as she stabbed through the spots, vomiting their innards, thick like clotted cream, the raw skin screaming still beneath, yet another pustule appeared on her forearm. She found five more spots to hollow. She moved to cover them, to gag them too with the paste. Each moment exposed more of them, each one the same as the last, a whole crop of oversized pimples edged with green.
Beneath her, in the shop, the half-finished fabric—an elaborate commission for the lady of the village—bleached in the sunlight, the edges fraying for days before one of the fools snatched it from the loom. The skeins stacked along the wall disappeared into greedy hands. The pot of dye was upended, spilled a deep river between the cobblestones, the dregs breeding a foul odor, eating the thread she had shoved into it. Soon even the loom itself was dismantled.
Upstairs, as quickly as the blemishes emerged, she worked to cover them.
Prick. Drain. Choke.
Across her entire body, she plastered on the lead, until not an inch of skin was left exposed, until she entombed herself in it, unable to bend an elbow or knee or wrist to continue, lest she crack and her facade crumble. Underneath, her skin poached. The white nibbled at the raw skin with little invisible teeth until her epidermis melted, letting it soak into her muscles, then her bones, eating away until nothing was left but the shell of her own doing.
PseudoPod, Episode 842 for December 9th, 2022.
Palette by Jenny Kiefer [KEY-fur]
Narrated by Katherine Inskip; hosted by Kat Day audio by Chelsea Davis/Marty Perrett (think Chelsea? tbc)
Hey everyone, hope you’re all doing okay. I’m Kat, assistant editor at PseudoPod, your host for this week…
Palette by Jenny Kiefer
This story originally appeared in the anthology Howls From the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror.
Jenny Kiefer is a horror author living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her debut novel, This Wretched Valley, is forthcoming from Quirk Books in 2024. She is the co-owner of Butcher Cabin Books, a small horror bookstore [ed note: go follow them on instagram – you will not be disappointed]. Her words have appeared in Howls from the Dark Ages, Miracle Monocle, Louisville Magazine, and Whisky Advocate. Twitter: @_jennykiefer
Website: www.jennykiefer.com TikTok: @jlkiefer
Your reader this week is Katherine Inskip. Katherine is co-editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.
Before the story itself, a content warning: this piece contains very strong body horror. If that’s not for you, this is your last chance to read the sign that says “here be horrors” and decide to skip off down the other, more sunshiny path.
Are you sure?
All right then. We have a story for you, and we promise you, it’s true.
Well done, you’ve survived another story.
That was Palette, by Jenny Kiefer. Now, as you might imagine, I read a lot of short horror fiction. Occasionally something in my reading pile makes me sit up and say, “oh, this is good.” (Mostly, we run those.) Sometimes something causes me to shake my head in a kind of “good lord, what the living hell is this?” sort of way. But one does not volunteer to edit a horror podcast is one is easily freaked out, and hence it is extremely rare for a story to ACTUALLY unsettle me. Nearly unheard of, in fact.
But this one did it.
I picked this out of the anthology, Howls From the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror, on the recommendation of associate editor, Christi Nogle, who’d read it before me. “Visceral, memorable body horror,” she said. “Oh good,” I thought, “I like body horror, let’s take a look…”
I ended up trying to read it through my fingers. I’m not even sure what I thought that would achieve. I winced. I skipped paragraphs because I couldn’t bear it, and then I went back and read them again, because what was I doing? Horror that gets under the skin like this is a rare thing indeed, and not to be skipped over.
I’m a chemist by training, and I worked as a chemistry teacher for many years. I know how much we worry about lead exposure, and much more now than when I was a child. Hell, when I was child, lead compounds were still added to petrol. We inhaled lead particles every day. Sometimes I think about that, and I wonder what it did to my generation, and the one before it. The one that seems to be experiencing an uptick in Alzheimer’s and the like. But anyway,getting back to the story. I winced, hard, at the line: “Every Saturday, she stirred the lead powder into rosewater.” Because, oh gods, we’re not just talking about traces, here. No, this presumably refers to a mixture something like Venetian ceruse, which contained lead carbonate. Straight onto the skin. Every cursed day. Wealthy women in the sixteenth century really did this – one, Isabella d’Este, was described in an account as having a: “smeared face” as “dishonestly ugly and even more dishonestly made up.” And some historians think Elizabeth I’s death may have been caused by chronic lead poisoning.
Red bryony is a poisonous plant – containing cucurbitacin glycosides that cause all sorts of unpleasant effects, from diarrhoea to paralysis to hair loss, and on skin the juice produces inflammation. It does make the lips look so red and pretty though, doesn’t it?
Brazilwood was used to make red dye, but it contains hydrogen cyanide so, yeah, not something to put on your face. It was used to make chemical weapons during World War II. The alum by the way, is some sort of aluminium sulfate, and by far the least scary thing so far – it acts as a mordant in the dyeing process, and it’s still used in deodorants and sometimes in styptic pencils used to stop bleeding from shaving nicks. It’s only harmful if you eat it. Of course, our protagonist is dipping her fingers into the pot. So…
Later we hear about quicklime – corrosive calcium oxide – and quicksilver – highly toxic mercury – and now perhaps you’re beginning to see why this chemist was so traumatised by this story.
But even if you don’t entirely recognise the chemical names, there’s so much more here. The reflections on wealth, the obsession with beauty. With looking a certain way. With the “right” kind skin. It’s medieval horror, but have we moved on? Have we? I’m not so sure.
Women, perhaps especially, are taught to wear masks. Behave correctly. Look the part. If you don’t, you will be attacked, sometimes violently. Perhaps fatally. Witness the treatment today, right now, of any woman – and I include trans women in this – who doesn’t look feminine enough. “It’s a man” is an all too common refrain. We know what it means. The threat is clear. Here, our main character’s mask begins to erode and she is scared. Horrified. She will do anything, including mutilating herself painfully and horribly, to keep that mask in place. She stops ever uncovering her face – she just piles more and more poisonous layers on top. To the very end she keeps trying to hide. Because to stop means certain death. Underneath it all, nothing is left. But that’s okay. So long as her outside is still beautiful.
Palette, by J.L.Kiefer. It’s utterly horrible. I love it. Well done.
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Pseudopod is part of Escape Artists incorporated and is distributed under a creative commons attribution non-commercial no derivatives 4.0 international licence. Download and listen to the episode on any device you like, but don’t change it or sell it. Theme music is by permission of Anders Manga.
Next week is Trickin’ by Nicole Givens Kurtz, narrated by Devante Johnson, hosted by Tonia Ransom from NightLight, with audio production from the fabulous Chelsea Davis. Ooh, that’s gonna be good. I can’t wait. Take care, everyone, and stay as safe as you possibly can.
We leave you with a closing quote from the book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, by Kate Moore
“But her bones seemed very much alive: making impressions on photographic plates; carelessly emitting measurable radioactivity. It was all due, of course, to the radium. Sarah’s own life may have been cut short, but the radium inside her had a half-life of 1,600 years. It would be shooting out its rays from Sarah’s bones for centuries, long after she was gone.”
About the Author
Jenny Kiefer (KEY-fur) is a horror author living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her debut novel, This Wretched Valley, is forthcoming from Quirk Books in 2024. She is the co-owner of Butcher Cabin Books, a small horror bookstore [ed note: go follow them on instagram – you will not be disappointed]. Her words have appeared in Howls from the Dark Ages, Miracle Monocle, Louisville Magazine, and Whisky Advocate. Twitter: @_jennykiefer, Website: www.jennykiefer.com, TikTok: @jlkiefer
About the Narrator
Kat Day is a PhD chemist who was once a teacher and is now a writer and editor. By day she mostly works as a freelance editor and proofreader of scientific materials, with bits of article and book-writing thrown in. By night she… mostly does all the stuff she hasn’t managed to do during the day. She’s had articles published in Chemistry World, has written science content for DK and has produced scripts for Crash Course Organic Chemistry. Her fiction can be found at Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @chronicleflask , or check out her blogs, The Chronicle Flask and The Fiction Phial. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern. Kat joined the team in 2019, and became assistant editor in 2021.