[Bits of] Grotesk: The Substitution Trunk

If your right hand is causing you pain
Cut it off, cut it off
If your colors have started to run
Let them all run, run away from you
“Flux,” Bloc Party

The Substitution Trunk
H.H Neville


Amsterdam, 1863:

It was a particularly dreary evening in the city. A gluttonous moon slung heavy and low, fat from a winter’s feast of bright, juvenile stars. Tonight would be much the same. The moon glowered green with envy; a hunger unsated.

A willing accomplice, crooked, vile clouds weaved together in patchwork, gently persuading coming acts of murder in a warm, welcoming quilt.

The voracious predator ate; smatterings of flesh dabbed his cheeks, spilled from his agape lips with each mouthful. Some of the frightened little things cried out, attempted to run, streaking across the sky. All in vain. The insatiable beast would not relent.

At last, when the moon had gorged himself fully, the clouds split, showing a sky dead and lonely, forfeit of stars. From between bursted seams dropped remains of the slaughter: stars’ blood – porcelain white and cold – flittered down. The earth’s skin shivered under each gentle touch.

Under the chilly blood shed the mood was no less expectantly bleak. Troves of human chess pieces – pawns, several appointed knights, a spare bishop, even a king – braved the dawning snow and prickly winds in front of the repurposed opium den; The Bird of Paradise.

In a former life she milled grain. Now, the past windmill which loomed above all other edifices in the city helped attain greater highs. Accustomed to helping the ignoble nobles and fortunate unfortunates in their pursuits of slaying boredom and their sanity, today she held court for a more fantastic spectacle: execution…perhaps. The Bird sparkled in gay accordance of the occasion. Her tawny tower of cobble and mortar stretched out like a proud neck, stilted and high. A sparkly necklace of freshly detailed white boardwalk wrapped itself high around; a place for her patrons to exit and enjoy the romantic skyline. At the head of such a fine construct where a crown ought site were the four mill blades, fashioned after its namesake’s petals, vividly painted orange to match. They proudly lapped the air.

Inside the double citrine doors, the walls and air lacked its customary sour, wanton perfume and the hookahs remained dry, unlit. Instead, should the daft watchmen at Whitehall have their way, the floors would run red with the blood of a witch.

Were a woman accused of being a witch and her subsequent execution not spectacle enough, several queer facts made it more so. Unconcerned with their own duties, the Dutch government left the crimes of a national to be levied on English soil. For circumstances undiscovered, her execution was being carried out in Netherlands, not England.

Furthermore, the accused was an infamous illusionist throughout Europe. Heralded by most as a showman and entertainer, playing at but not realising the magick she claimed to control. Her skills at such never more evident than in death. Through the newspapers she issued a challenge:

“I offer my public a most astounding performance.  I promise to circumvent the English at their game of death. Never shall an escape performed by me or any other be more triumphant than the escape from certain death. If I am a witch as the English claim, let them draw my head from my shoulders and then let me rise thereafter, free my deathly binds. Should they be wrong, I will have escaped under the most improbable and fantastic illusions.”

Nary a soul dared miss such a promissory defiance. Some held to morbid fantasy; hoped to see a woman evade death. Some carried national arrogance; hoped to see the Dutch make a mockery of the English. Some simply wanted to watch a foolish woman die. All expected the most sublime entertainment of their lives.

At noon, a constable dressed in funeral black trudged through the crowd with a dull stride. A solitary key at his waist slide loosely around the rim of a large ring fastened to his belt. Each time the key rolled toward twelve o’clock and then sunk back to six it made a haunting clap, like the fall of the guillotine. With each empty step forward, the key tick-tocked ever closer toward death. The constable dipped below street level as he descended into the narrow stairwell; hardly wide enough for a man of his modest size to fit shoulder to shoulder. The assembled crowd peeked anxiously over as the constable’s human form drowned in the thick, black inkwell of shadows.

The jingle of key ceased at the bottom step and a thin blade of light sliced through the dark. The wound grew direr and light spilled out, quickly filling the staircase.

“The execution will begin in an hour. We’ll be seating now,” the constable  gave a permissive crease of the fingers before crossing into the den himself.
The masses sunk beneath the cobblestone lane one at a time, down the steps and into The Bird of Paradise. First, royalty and important men of religion, who entered and then immediately peeled in either direction, taking up residence at the back of the room, keeping a delicate distance between them and the carnage. Following them were the affluent members  of society in their finest powdered wigs and long flowing velvet coats. Each grade of humanity passed through until finally, the bloodthirsty rabble stood near the stage in what little cramped spaces they could find, with a winning chance of being painted in blood.

Occasionally The Bird of Paradise held entertainment – oftentimes lewd, one act plays performed by harlots and fools – and as such, was outfitted with a meager, but capable stage. Above her blistered and wrinkled floorboards, loose or missing nails at her joints hung a tattered red curtain made of corduroy and patched with contrast cheesecloth. Painted sloppily in the center of the curtain, bright, enchanting tendrils snaked toward the heavens like a flame. Petals of the flower from which the den took its name. This pathetic stage would serve – through death or deceit – as musician to a swan-song; the final resting place of Daphne Grotesk.

The tired boards of the stage agonised as silhouettes began to take shape behind the curtain. Air in the den grew sparse as the audience collectively took in one final breath and held to it tightly.

Moments later a portly man in matching constable attire – but whose legs disappeared into his boots, whose torso hid behind a roomy jacket, whose neck sunk into his shoulders and whose face barely peeked from his cap – limboed comfortably to the front of the stage and began to heave the curtains open.
Meek house lights retired, leaving the stage to blaze arrogantly. At the center of attention was the smiling guillotine, bespectacled and proud. As light glanced the blade, it beamed.  At stage left stood two men unconcerned and concentrated. Their costumes were different than those of the constables, but their appearances were far too officious for them not to be lawmen.

At their shoulder was, unmistakably, the executioner. He had the same important uniform and coat as the other two, but at contrast, was his thick  black veil which concealed any human features.

As the stout, piles of clothes in human form moved to stage right, the stage revealed the statue of Daphne Grotesk. Bonded at both the wrists and ankles, she stood unmoving and inattentive, her eyes locked on the pattern of birthmarks on the boards between her feet. An anxious applause rose from the audience.

Grotesk acknowledged nothing. An unsettled eternity found comfort in an instant.

Then it was time.

The officers stalked behind the guillotine toward Grotesk. One of them clasped hands upon her shoulders and nudged her toward the other. She promptly gave the other her wrists, underside up. The officer took her arms and worked on unlocking her manacles. There was a pithy discourse this caused in the crowd. Many of them had seen – on many occasions – Daphne Grotesk free herself from much more complicated cuffs. They felt cheated, both then and now; anticipation of miracles diluted into a very lucid realisation of having been grifted, past and present.

As the officer freed her wrists, the other behind her asked her for a final request.

“Do you have any last wish before we put you to death today, at the guillotine’s jaws?”

For the first time since the spectacle began, Grotesk’s eyes lifted from the stage. They came to rest wearily on the sensationalist masses beyond her.
A thin pocket of air filled her cheeks before she softly let it out.

The den joined her in the gesture, exhaling impatiently.

“Do not blink,” she whispered.

They set her prone along the guillotine and refastened this time through a ring on the belly of the instrument. By the nature of the posture, she was pulled taut, her arms splayed forward and her legs anchored behind; her neck cooed to rest, ready to come in two.

The Bird of Paradise, was befallen in silence save for the soft patter of last rites being chanted from somewhere in her belly.

The blade crashed down. A crack sounded like a shot of thunder.  Wood splintered, spraying the stage with confetti. Head ripped free of spine and rolled from the guillotine, smacking moistly to the stage, then the floor.

A corpse lay deadly still; testament to failure. A woman, not a witch had been put to death; a woman tethered to a fate no magician could escape.

3 thoughts on “[Bits of] Grotesk: The Substitution Trunk

  1. “Do not blink,” she whispered.

    I love this bit.

    I also love the fact that your writing is always so rich. Your prose just *feels* expensive sometimes. ^^

  2. And yet, here it is…free of charge as it will always be!

    Thanks so much for the kind words. I think at times Grotesk here (and down the road) is a bit dense (not that I’ve never been accused of that previously) but I was really, really focusing on setting a mood at all costs.

    I’m certain I succeeded, for once.

    Further down, I had to match that mood with a bit of conceit, also, as it’ll be quite clear that something will be driving Grotesk out of her traditional nihilism; she’s got a hint at what it is, but, us as the readers will have no clue.

    This might very well become too much to follow as like a dog after its tail, abstraction chases abstraction to the point where it may dizzy even the most disciplined. Though, that was a concession early on, I felt I had to make. It’s just the way things needed to be so that this overall piece felt right.

    While the overall arc (Substitution Trunk, The City in the Music Box, Blanc/Noir, Along a Crooked Path and The Rangda Academy) all follow a very Victoriana tone (as if molested heavily by a modern absurdist), I wanted to take a more “Eastern” approach to the storytelling in that, I would feel comfortable in throwing things at the audience without immediately explaining things. If that makes any sense.

    Anyway, yeah, there’s about thirteen chunks this size of finished material for Substitution Trunk that I’ll be posting here, then it’s back to trying to finish it off.

    When posting this I recently went and re-read all of this, and was inspired again to get back to writing. Which is good, because, I was at a spot that I didn’t feel right, and I needed to break. It has since come back to me and I even put down some paragraphs that were better than anything I’d written previously in that scene.

    Ramble, ramble.

    Thanks for reading.


  3. Your pose is pure poetry here. Incredible imagery throughout.

    The sparse dialogue stands out in contrast. First, Daphne Grotesk’s (great name, by the way) boasts, revealing her showman personality. Then, the succinct “do not blink,” which, as Jac commented, was a brilliant moment.

    And then…the ending. The ending we should’ve all been expecting but weren’t, thanks to her dialogue, her confidence, her showmanship. Of course, the inescapable end is an escape in itself.

    I’ve been privy to some of what’s to come, but I can’t wait to see how it all ties together and folds in on itself.


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