The silky laces weave through the metal eyelet of the corset, their puppeteer pulling them taut. The marionette’s breath hovers in her chest, her heart thudding. She doesn’t meet the puppeteer’s eyes, doesn’t even flirt a glance. Instead, she focuses on her transformation in the mirror, the reflective surface framed by gilded carvings of filigree and mythological she-beasts with reptilian tails and snakey tendrils. Her hips appear wide and fleshy, her chest seems to tremble with each movement, toppling over the bones of the shapewear.
The puppeteer pulls tighter, the lace slipping through metal with a squeal. The marionette sways on her feet, the ground suddenly a seesaw. She wants to fan herself but thinks better of it. That isn’t how a lady acts, she reminds herself.
She stares ahead, studying the contortion of her body, her waist whittled until she feels both hollow and bulging. Her cheeks flush like a painted doll’s. Her forehead is pebbled with perspiration. Her eyes flicker. She fights the urge to close them and fall into a dream.
The pull on the laces slacken. She stretches her eyes wide.
Ah, there, the puppeteer says. His fingers trace her new form.
She cannot feel his touch, only watch it reflected in the mirror. Her limbs are tingling from the lack of blood flow.
Now you are perfect, he says. She watches his grin stretch across the glass.
Her forehead and neck are slick. Her feet no longer seem to be on the ground. The marionette scrutinizes the woman before her, hunting for imperfections. Yet she finds none. Finally, she is perfect. The marionette imagines the puppeteer’s hand rising, raising her body into the air, her beautifully shaped limbs stretching into a split tail.
The quilt my mother spent many painstaking hours teaching me how to sew. Its patches taken from bedsheets, dresses I’d outgrown, and snips of fabric she kept from jobs. On a faded floral piece, red threads in the shape of a heart, her signature to me. My mother’s box spilling threads, buttons, and needles. A proper lady, a proper wife, always has a sewing kit handy. The weathered parchment with squiggly g’s and l’s and q’s rolled into a scroll. I don’t need to read the words anymore; they are etched into my mind. Leather gloves, smooth and rigid, hardly worn. A gift fitting from a groom to his bride. The canary-yellow diamond, fat and square, ready to topple on its gold setting. Threadbare dresses and petticoats, stained from years of labor and poverty. An out of fashion lace wedding dress faded to beige, carefully folded and placed in a box. A mahogany trunk so new it squeaks when opened, the smell of stain and wood lifting into the air. A vessel to be filled with memories and belongings of a past life. A vessel brimming with the future, with possibility.
A forever friend she called it. Someone to play make-believe with to hold close to her chest at night. Someone who would never leave her, like her parents, and then her foster family, had.
Jessi found her forever friend at the strangest of places. The storefront was tucked away from busy streets like Bourbon and Royal, devoid of tourists, panhandlers, and discarded mardi gras beads. Jazz echoed down the block, fading the further the girl went. The quiet and stillness were unfamiliar. She swallowed and read the flyer taped to a window with a portrait of a bearded woman beneath the glass. She wore a tall collar with a brooch in the middle. A thick black beard tickled the pin. The piece of paper said, “Love the bizarre? Come to J. Allister’s Oddities & Antiques to behold a collection of the weird, the scary, the wacky. $5.00 entry.”
Below the words: a black and white photograph of a doll. It was a poor-quality photo—grainy and not completely in focus—but the doll’s face was perfectly clear to Jessi. Like she had seen it before. The doll in the photo had a pale face with high, curved eyebrows. Her eyes were large and wide—the pupils nearly exploding—with thick eyelashes only on the bottom. Her mouth was tiny, thinner than the width of her nose at its widest part. Her lips made a heart without the pointed bottom. Her chin and cheeks were rounded and soft looking with two circles on each side of her face. She had lopsided dark bangs. The doll wore the expression of someone who was paralyzed by fear.
A few people stopped to look at the flyer while Jessi was there. She scowled as they said, “That doll looks possessed,” or “Why would I want to see a creepy doll when I could see a bearded woman? Where’s that exhibit?”
Jessi curled her arms, bringing her fingers to her armpits. She bared her teeth and began to make monkey sounds until the people hurried away. She shook her head. She thought the doll looked beautiful and lonely like she needed a friend. And Jessi planned to be just that.