The muses are beautiful, but dangerous.
They are kept in silk lined stalls.
They have a very short life expectancy. Two days from the time the first stitch is placed, because without food and water the skin dries up and shrivels, hanging too loose on the body to properly ink.
They are all silent, in honor of the very first mute muse, the first muse to become a book. The thing is, no one even remembers the poems or title. They only know the legend of the mute muse.
I tell the new kid this. He follows me as we walk down the stone corridor. “The thing is,” I tell him, “they know what’s coming. They’re afraid. Fear is powerful. It makes them stronger than they should be.”
We are muse wranglers. Our job is to get them safely out of their stalls, wrestle them into their restraints, for the Poet. It has to be just right, with the muses spread like starfish, their toes just touching the ground, arms hyperextended. They have to be fixed in place, flesh drawn taut and stretched while their body still breathes, to transform into works of art. And, of course, it won’t do to have any mistakes. No smudges, blurring of words. Wranglers have been killed for less. There are no errors here that don’t come with swift and severe consequences.
They are all beautiful and thin, boyish bodies. Small breasts, that’s important. It’s hard to use curved skin. Too much curve makes the sentences irregular and the page ruined. There was a Poet once that wanted only big breasted, wide hipped muses. What happened to him, that was worse than becoming a book of poetry.
“Why are their mouths sewn shut?” New kid asks.
The catchers use thick thread. They leave small, almost invisible spaces to drink through. They always get thirsty, even the proud ones. They all drop their face into their water basin and suck it up, by the time the hourglass runs out.
“We used to pull their teeth, so they couldn’t bite themselves, mark up the skin,” I tell him. “But they got sick. Hard to keep that many empty sockets clean, ruined the flesh with infection.”
Skin, stinking of sickness, ruined. No one wanted to read pages reeking of death.
“That’s why the padded walls, too” I say.
He frowns. “Why not just keep them tied down?”
“Bruises. Sores.” Even an hour or two can cause leaky blood to spread, rotten blossoms, ruined fruits. Turning was too hard, took too much work, too much scuffling, too many pelts wasted by scrapes and plum colored marks.
“Where do they come from?”
I shrug. Doesn’t matter to me. It’s hard out there right now, since the war with the Northerners. There isn’t enough food or work to go around. A woman’s got to feed her family, after all, and I try to be merciful. “You must always think of them as the muses,” I tell New Kid, NK for short. I don’t learn names until they show up for two compositions in a row. This isn’t for everyone. I get that.
“Some of them are sold, by their families. Some of them are found. Some of them are Northerners.” I shrug. It’s becoming a habit.
NK doesn’t breathe for a moment. Then he says, “from the north?”
“Yeah,” I say. “We better get a move on.”
The northerners are different. They almost won the war, mouths full of needles. My husband came home from the war a silent man. He didn’t talk much when he came back and even less now. I’ve never had much to say so it’s pretty quiet at home. We have no children. His face was all burnt up, when he returned, and only half of it moved, when he said, “I’ll never bring a child into this world.” I took care of him, how we met.
He couldn’t leave the house. He talked about the Northerners. He talked about the girl he was supposed to marry, how she screamed at the sight of his face. He shook when he tried to leave the little house he had, so he never left. He stayed in, I brought him his medicines and cared for him, and then we were married.
“Are there northerners here now?” NK asks.
There is only one, all sunless artic skin, kept on the end. She took off the fingers of the first person who tried to sew her mouth shut. She let them fall from her mouth to the floor already frozen and now they float in a jar, tentacles of ice trailing from them.
“One,” I say, short and I’m tired of answering questions. I walk faster. We have to get the first one ready. The Poet is ready.
“You must always call them the muses, or them,” I tell him. “No names. They’re not girls. They’re not women. They are muses. They have a purpose.”
But they are girls. Not a woman among them. Flesh gets old fast.
We stop at number one. She is warm and rich, all velvet brown. She doesn’t resist much, it’s easy to slip the padded metal noose around her neck. Baron, who has been quiet this whole time, takes over and explains the next step to NK. I will force Muse One down the hallway to the writing room, christened with stanzas written in blood, and then they will each need to grab a leg, down by the ankle, and fasten the harness. Everything is soft but yanked tight, and once the ankles are secure they will run the chain back through the loops on the wall. Leverage. Then the wrists next, to the higher loops. All the chains are snaked through loops on the floor or ceiling, the better to stretch the canvas.
Muse One goes almost too easily. She hardly resists at all, mostly crying and short little moans escaping the prison mouth. I wished it would have been harder, for NK’s first. The fighters are the real test. But he has passed my own test-he didn’t touch her any more than necessary. No handful of breast or stroke of the hip.
The process begins when night arrives.
After each chapter, we remove the muse, and take her to the death room. There the muse will be locked into the same starfish pose, until death. It is quick, the executioner with strong gloved hands, the fragile necks strangled of breath.
I’m lucky I was born ugly. My parents would have sold me as a muse without a second thought, and I’d be starfished out and peeled of my skin, my carcass smoking in the fire pit out back, remnants fashioned into a book only the very rich read. Their fingers, soft and free of callouses, would smooth my skin, pressed into pages of velvet, and they would think of the poetry and the beautiful muses that fed the machine.
The deaths in this place are not poetic, whatever they may think.
My husband was the first man to be kind to me. He never called me ugly or made fun of my leg that’s shorter than the other. He was not handsome himself, with the scars. My first suitor was ugly like me, but he would stare at the beautiful girls we passed in the street, with the sort of longing the poets write on the muses. It left a mark, a scar on the soul.
I used to apologize to the muses, as I led them to their destiny. Not out loud. I’msorryI’msorryI’MSORRY over and over in my head, not escaping my mouth, but maybe if I screamed loud enough in my mind, they could have heard. I don’t anymore. There have been too many.
Sometimes I wish I was a northerner, made of cold fire, with the lightning blue eyes and teeth that tore fingers from hands and muscle from bone. I could be beautiful and dangerous, not ugly and nothing.
NK mumbles something, but I don’t understand him too well. He’s not opening his mouth enough when he talks. Just enough to get sounds out. The words get hung up. I know how he feels. It’s hard to understand, until hunger has gnawed your belly, and your stomach turns onto your other organs. Then you will know how far you will go to eat. When the person you love grows skeletal and withers in front of your eyes, then you can tell me you would never step in the Library of Poetry.
“Where you from?” Baron asks NK, when we take a break. The moon is full-they only compose during a full or new moon. I count the pock marks on its face.
“Border,” NK says. Sort of. The words, they come out bitten off, or something. I shiver. This place is its own kind of border.
“The North Border?”
NK nods, his eyes big in his face. Nothing has fazed him so far, but there’s something wrong here. I go inside early, leave them to it. I try to ignore the grumbling of my belly and the acid rising in my throat.
I deserve to be here.
I am glad my husband can’t leave the house.
I feel bad for the muses, but not enough to stop taking the coins that put food on the table. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. Maybe I’ll bake bread with just a pinch of sugar in it. Butter while its warm, melting into the pores. I won’t have to come back until the next composing moon.
Ugly is as ugly does, my mother always said.
Some of them do fight tonight. Like Baron, NK is quick, and efficient, and as night wears short, we come to the last one. The Northerner.
It all happens very fast. I slip the noose over the Northerner and we begin down the hallway when NK trips, and Baron goes to help him to his feet, and then Baron stumbles backwards, his hands at his throat, red ribbons of blood winding between his fingers. He makes a sound, disbelief? Startled? It’s hard to tell. I don’t drop the noose, but I shout at NK, what’s happened, what’s happened, and NK rises from his crouched position.
Northerners go berserk at the sight or smell of blood. Animals, they’ve told us. They’re animals who walk upright. But not the artic girl in the noose, she is a statue. Then NK comes towards me, his hands held out to his sides.
“Drop it,” he says. His words are clear, because he opens his mouth. His teeth are very small, slivers compared to ours. Not sharp needles-they’ve been filed down or cut. But they are the teeth of the north, no doubt.
I drop it. There’s no other way. Maybe they will be merciful, make it fast.
NK lifts the noose off. The girl sighs, relief. I stand unmoving, while NK cuts the stitches. He has a small, squat knife that is red with blood. Baron’s. Once he cuts one, she draws the fabric through, leaving dozens of holes in her skin. She opens her mouth wide, jaw unhinging, teeth free. Dozens upon dozens of jagged teeth. I stare into the open dark hole behind it, and wait for her to devour me.
It’s a relief, really. The world is growing colder and the food scarcer, and then they look at me.
NK starts towards me, with his knife out. Without his teeth he seems less threatening. “Please,” I say. “My husband-he’s an invalid. There’s no one to care for him without me.”
“Leave her,” the girl says. “She doesn’t matter.” Icicles in her voice.
Nk stops short. “The Poet?” he says.
“Yesssss.” The word freezes in the air.
Together they turn and walk towards the Library.
I leave through the main door, and I walk home, the first rays of sun peeking out at me. I go home and I bake the bread, with the pinch of sugar, and I cut the first piece for my husband. The butter melts and the bread are warm when I set on the blanket that covers his lap.
“For you,” I say, and pick up his hand. I had to glue the hands together. Once the tendons and ligaments were gone, they just lay jumbled up.
He doesn’t eat.
Hasn’t since the day he said he was leaving. “I want another chance at life.” Wasn’t this a life? He didn’t mean life. He meant another girl, maybe pretty like the old fiancé. What was I supposed to do? His back was to me and the front door open when I buried the bread knife in the side of his neck.
His skin fell away last year. Now he is here with me forever, and when I am ready I will lie in his arms and die in our lovers embrace. When we are found, our bones will tell of our love, and no one will know I was ugly.
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