A Twisted Tale by Sarah Beaudette
3,462 people responded to Mitchell’s tweet, all of them asking where to send their donations. Mitchell thanked each person from the bottom of his heart and gave the address of his brother’s cold storage unit in upstate New York.
One month later Mitchell was shivering in a maze of frosty boxes stacked to the ceiling. He picked his way through the crates, boxes, and air mailers of every size and color to the west end of the unit, toward his work table and some precious few feet of floor space. He’d only had a few thousand followers. He’d only been asking for donated materials for his newest sculpture, but something about his tweet struck a nerve with the masses and inspired them to come to his aid. Standing at the work table with apron donned and crowbar in hand, Mitchell knew he was about to become a conduit for a sea change in postmodern art.
The crate he opened first was a rectangular pine box the length of a coffin. The piece inside was whole, almost as big as himself. A block of deep green lake ice. A cluster of bubbles at the surface trailed downward to a woman’s mouth. Mitchell studied her serenely closed eyes, her diaphanous cloud of black hair, her perfectly preserved body. A note on the packing slip read “Don’t know why she’d go out there in April, damn fool woman. We were happy, nigh on 20 years. Can’t keep her like this anymore.”
Mitchell closed his eyes and breathed deeply, tapping the ice with a fingernail. It would take a long time to melt. In the meantime he’d let the ideas percolate. He switched on a heat lamp in the corner and turned to the next package–a thin yellow airmailer from Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Out of it Mitchell pulled a handful of tissue paper, along with what looked like a page of someone’s trigonometry workbook. A scribbled note read: “Dad said to tell u: 5x great grandmother’s ears, cut off 4 witchcraft, 16(??). They gross me out.” Mitchell shook them out of the tissue and pressed each leathery bauble carefully, testing its tensile strength. They’d make perfect knobs or even…ears. An idea thumped its first stuttering heartbeats. Mitchell snatched up the next package.
Inside the plain cardboard box was an expensive lavender hat box. On the silky lining inside it Mitchell found folded sheaths of supple, unmarred skin. Softer than calfskin. Mitchell was too busy lifting it out and arranging it this way and that over the table to see the note that fell on the floor. “Can send more if you want, always have more than I need.”
Mitchell plowed through the heaps of packages, the finished piece’s image now strobing in his brain. Within an hour he had three sets of Chinese women’s toes, enough for replacements if he made a mistake, 36 leather crescents from vaginal circumcisions, and twelve long, smooth femurs. He learned to shake the packages before opening them, and set aside any that sloshed. The fetuses in preserving solution were fascinating, but useless.
With the best pieces of flesh and bone spread out and sparkling with frost on the table, Mitchell was almost ready to start. First, the ice. The woman now lay as if sleeping in a puddle of water on the cement under the lamp. When he crouched to inspect her, his heart sank. The cellulite and age spots made the skin totally incompatible with the hatbox skin. Her bones had knitted unevenly after several violent breaks, and he couldn’t use those either. But the hair. Two feet long and thick, it shone in the dull red light. He cut it off with a pair of kitchen shears.
As the afternoon wore on, Mitchell had to discard many pieces that didn’t fit. Even with these setbacks, the piece took shape quickly under his fingers. After eight hours of bloody, sweaty work with boxcutters, nails, sutures, and a butcher’s mallet, he stretched his arms and rolled his neck. Finished. He turned on his phone for the first time since the last tweet in which he’d thanked everyone before going off the grid for a month of contemplation. Mitchell framed the piece in his screen. It was stunning; it would make his career. He’d been caught up in a fateful maelstrom that called to him even now in the January snowstorm raging outside. It was a completely new medium.
He snapped a photo to post. The outer construct was a cabinet, as he’d intended: a slanting box the size of a microwave, faultless skin stretched over powerful bones. Four smaller books fit inside it, each book with two flattish lids splayed open to reveal the third and smallest level: four tiny, humanoid dolls. It was better than he’d hoped: visceral, disturbing, vaguely threatening.
Mitchell opened Instagram to post the photo. He blinked. And blinked again. The very day he’d gone off the grid, people had started posting snaps of their own pieces inspired by his idea. Hundreds: many better than his, made in much less time, most of them by women using parts of their own bodies. One photo showed a bridge across the Snake River constructed entirely from women’s bodies wrapped with barbed wire. Its beams were covered by a fuzzy down of fingers and shags of escaping hair. Hair bandages around a small child’s cut finger. Kitchen witches dripping onto countertops. Garden paths sparkling ruby red next to homemade signposts. 3 Mexican Blend Fertilizer Will Help Your Garden Grow. Lumpy pregnant scarecrows hanging their heads in warning next to the revolving doors at the entrance of the Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey. A full size replica of the White House built with disinterred bones and covered in what looked like brown paint. Caption: 500 billion pints to get here.
Outside, stumbling through white drifts that threatened to engulf him, Mitchell dropped the last of the donations into a row of dumpsters. When he was finished and nearly frozen through, he placed the cabinet gently on top and made the three hour drive back to his apartment in Newark. For a year he rarely went outside. He couldn’t walk under a fire escape without carrying an umbrella to shield himself against the blood that rained like April showers–behind every closed apartment door was a work in progress. When he took his dog Trixie for a walk in the park, he had to watch out for pairs of gray feet that jutted into the path from under bushes and threatened to trip him up. People were calling them “installation pieces.”
On the tweet’s four-year anniversary, Mitchell finally accepted an interview request. He wanted to provide some context. He wanted a modicum of recognition.
Over Skype, the journalist asked him how it all started. Mitchell didn’t know why he answered the way he did, but it seemed to be what she wanted to hear. “Well, Candy,” he said, “I went to a number of women’s groups.”
The journalist nodded enthusiastically. Her lips parted in a carnival rictus that made Mitchell grimace, but he pressed on. He needed to explain.
“It was a conduit situation, starting with my tweet…”
She chuckled. Hiccupped. Erupted in outright guffaws. Mitchell waited politely but the journalist couldn’t control herself–the laughter fell out of her like a clown vomiting scarves.
Mitchell stared at the pinpoint scars encircling the woman’s mouth. She’d shrugged offhandedly when he’d asked about them during the smalltalk at the beginning of the interview. It was a college project she’d done when the movement first started, stitching her lips together. As she laughed the white dots stretched wider and Mitchell couldn’t look away. An unnameable fear blanketed his organs in dead grass and clogged his throat with wasp nest paper.
He wanted to go home. He wanted to forget the whole goddamned thing–but the journalist just kept laughing.
Sarah Beaudette is a nomadic writer currently living in Mexico. She spends her time deciphering subway maps in foreign languages, drinking strong coffee, and reading gorgeous horror. You can find her fiction at NYC Midnight and Necessary fiction, and her travel writing at theluxpats.com.