Science Fiction & Fantasy

THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM

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Fiction

The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue

There is a werewolf girl in the city. She sits by the phone on a Saturday night, waiting for it to ring. She paints her nails purple.

She goes to bed early. Body curled around a pillow, fingers clawing at the bedspread, she dreams that she’s on a dating show, a reality television one. She’s supposed to pick one boyfriend out of a dozen strangers by eliminating one candidate each week. After eliminations, she eats the guys she’s asked to leave. In her dream, the boys get more and more afraid as they overhear screams, but they can’t quite believe the show is letting them be murdered one by one, so they convince each other to stay until the end. In the reunion episode, the werewolf girl eats the boy who she’s picked to be her boyfriend.

That’s the only way to get to do a second season, after all.

When she wakes up, she’s sorry about the dream. It makes her feel guilty and a little bit hungry, which makes her feel worse. Her real-life boyfriend is a good guy, the son of a dentist from an ancestral line of dentists. Sometimes, he takes her to his dad’s office and they sit in the chairs and suck on nitrous while watching the overhead televisions that are supposed to distract patients. When they do that, the werewolf girl feels calmer than she’s felt her whole life.

She’s calling herself Nadia in this city. She’s called herself Laura and Liana and Dana in other places.

Despite going to bed early, she’s woken up tired.

Nadia takes her temperature and jots it down in a little notebook by the side of the bed. Temperature is more accurate than phases of the moon in telling her when she’s going to change.

She gets dressed, makes coffee, and drinks it. Then goes to work. She is a waitress on a street where there are shirt shops and shops that sell used records and bandanas and studded belts. She brings out tuna salads to aged punks and cappuccinos in massive bowls to tourists who ask her why she doesn’t have any tattoos.

Nadia still looks young enough that her lack of references doesn’t seem strange to her employers, although she worries about the future. For now, though, she appears to be one of a certain type of girl—a girl that wants to be an actress, who’s come in from the suburbs and never really worked before, a girl restaurants in the city employ a lot of. She always asks about flexibility in her interviews, citing auditions and rehearsals. Nadia is glad of the easy excuses, since she does actually need a flexible schedule.

The only problem with her lie is that the other girls ask her to go to auditions.

Sometimes Nadia goes, especially when she’s lonely. Her boyfriend is busy learning about teeth and gets annoyed when she calls him. He has a lot of classes. The auditions are often dull, but she likes the part where all the girls stand in line and drink coffee while they wait. She likes the way their skin shimmers with nervous sweat and their eyes shine with the possibility of transformation. The right part will let them leave their dirty little lives behind and turn them into celebrities.

Nadia sits next to another waitress, Rhonda, as they wait to be called back for the second phase of the audition for a musical. Rhonda is fingering a cigarette that she doesn’t light—because smoking is not allowed in the building and also because she’s trying to quit.

Grace, a willowy girl who can never remember anyone’s order at work, has already been cut.

“I hate it when people stop doing things and then they don’t want to be around other people doing them,” Rhonda says, flipping the cigarette over and over in her fingers. “Like people who stop drinking and then can’t hang out in bars. I mean, how can you really know you’re over something if you can’t deal with being tempted by it?”

Nadia nods automatically, since it makes her feel better to think that letting herself be tempted is a virtue. Sometimes she thinks of the way a ribcage cracks or the way fat and sinew and offal taste when they’re gulped down together hot and raw. It doesn’t bother her that she has these thoughts, except when they come at inappropriate moments, like being alone with the driver in a taxi or helping a friend clean up after a party.

A large woman with many necklaces calls Rhonda’s name and she goes out onto the stage. Nadia takes another sip of her coffee and looks over at the sea of other girls on the call-back list. The girls look back at her through narrowed eyes.

Rhonda comes back quickly. “You’re next,” she says to Nadia. “I saw the clipboard.”

“How was it?”

Rhonda shakes her head and lights her cigarette. “Stupid. They wanted me to jump around. They didn’t even care if I could sing.”

“You can’t smoke in here,” one of the other girls says.

“Oh, shove it,” says Rhonda.

When Nadia goes out onto the stage, she expects her audition to go fast. She reads monologues in a way that can only be called stilted. She’s never had a voice coach. The only actual acting she ever does is when she pretends to be disappointed when the casting people don’t want her. Usually she just holds the duffel bags of the other girls as they are winnowed down, cut by cut.

The stage is lit so that she can’t see the three people sitting in the audience too well. It’s one of those converted warehouse theaters where everyone sits at tables with tea lights and gets up a lot to go to the bar in the back. No tea lights are flickering now.

“We want to teach you a routine,” one of them says. A man’s voice, with an accent she can’t place. “But first—a little about our musical. It’s called the Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue. Have you heard of it?”

Nadia shakes her head. On the audition call, it was abbreviated ATSCR. “Are you Mr. Aarne?”

He makes a small sound of disappointment. “We like to think of it as a kitchen sink of delights. Animal Tales. Tales of Magic. Jokes. Everything you could imagine. Perhaps the title is a bit dry, but our poster more than makes up for that. You ready to learn a dance?”

“Yes,” says Nadia.

The woman with the necklaces comes out on the stage. She shows Nadia some simple steps and then points to crossed strips of black masking tape on the floor.

“You jump from here to here at the end,” the woman says.

“Ready?” calls the man. One of the other people sitting with him says something under his breath.

Nadia nods, going over the steps in her head. When he gives her the signal, she twists and steps and leaps. She mostly remembers the moves. At the end, she leaps though the air for the final jump. Her muscles sing.

In that moment, she wishes she wasn’t a fake. She wishes that she was a dancer. Or an actress. Or even a waitress. But she’s a werewolf and that means she can’t really be any of those other things.

“Thank you,” another man says. He sounds a little odd, as though he’s just woken up. Maybe they have to watch so many auditions that they take turns napping through them. “We’ll let you know.”

Nadia walks back to Rhonda, feeling flushed. “I didn’t think this was a call for dancers.”

Rhonda rolls her eyes. “It’s for a musical. You have to dance in a musical.”

“I know,” says Nadia, because she does know. But there’s supposed to be singing in musicals too. She thought Rhonda would be annoyed at only being asked to dance; Rhonda usually likes to complain about auditions. Nadia looks down at her purple nail polish. It’s starting to chip at the edges.

She puts the nail in her mouth and bites it until she bleeds.

Being a werewolf is like being Clark Kent, except that when you go into the phone booth, you can’t control what comes out.

Being a werewolf is like being a detective who has to investigate his own crimes.

Being a werewolf means that when you take off your clothes, you’re still not really naked. You have to take off your skin too.

Once, when Nadia had a different name and lived in a small town outside of Toronto, she’d been a different girl. She took ballet and jazz dancing. She had a little brother who was always reading her diary. Then one day on her way home from school, a man asked her to help him find his dog. He had a leash and a van and everything.

He ate part of her leg and stomach before anyone found them.

When she woke up in the hospital, she remembered the way he’d caught her with his snout pinning her neck, the weight of his paws. She looked down at her unscarred skin and stretched her arms, ripping the IV needle out without meaning to.

She left home after she tried to turn her three best friends into werewolves too. It didn’t work. They screamed and bled. One of them died.

“Nadia,” Rhonda is saying.

Nadia shakes off all her thoughts like a wet dog shaking itself dry.

The casting director is motioning to her. “We’d like to see you again,” the woman with the necklaces says.

“Her?” Rhonda asks.

When Nadia goes back on stage, they tell her she has the part.

“Oh,” says Nadia. She’s too stunned to do more than take the packet of information on rehearsal times and tax forms. She forgets to ask them which part she got.

That night Rhonda and Grace insist on celebrating. They get a bottle of cheap champagne and drink it in the back of the restaurant with the cook and two of the dishwashers. Everyone congratulates Nadia and Rhonda keeps telling stories about clueless things that Nadia did on other auditions and how it’s a good thing that the casting people only wanted Nadia to dance because she can’t act her way out of a paper bag.

Nadia says that no one can act their way out of a paper bag. You can only rip your way out of one. That makes everyone laugh and—Rhonda says—is a perfect example of how clueless Nadia can be.

“You must have done really well in that final jump,” Rhonda says. “Were you a gymnast or something? How close did you get?”

“Close to what?” Nadia asks.

Rhonda laughs and takes another swig out of the champagne bottle. “Well, you couldn’t have made it. No human being could jump that far without a pole vault.”

Nadia’s skin itches.

Later, her boyfriend comes over. She’s still tipsy when she lets him in and they lie in bed together. For hours he tells her about teeth. Molars. Bicuspids. Dentures. Prosthodontics. She falls asleep to the sound of him grinding his jaw, like he’s chewing through the night.

Rehearsals for the Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue happen every other afternoon. The director’s name is Yves. He wears dapper suits in brown tweed and tells her, “You choose what you reveal of what you are when you’re on stage.”

Nadia doesn’t know what that means. She does know that when she soars through the air, she wants to go higher and further and faster. She wants her muscles to burn. She knows she could, for a moment, do something spectacular. Something that makes her shake with terror. She thinks of her boyfriend and Rhonda and the feel of the nitrous filling her with drowsy nothingness; she does the jump they tell her and no more than that.

The other actors aren’t what she expects. There is a woman who plays a mermaid whose voice is like spun gold. There is a horned boy who puts on long goat legs and prances around the stage, towering above them. And there is a magician who is supposed to keep them all as part of his menagerie in cages with glittering numbers.

“Where are you from?” the mermaid asks. “You look familiar.”

“People say that a lot,” Nadia says, although no one has ever said it to her. “I guess I have that kind of face.”

The mermaid smiles and smoothes back gleaming black braids. “If you want, you can use my comb. It works on even the most matted fur—”

“Wow,” says the goat boy, lurching past. “You must be special. She never lets anyone use her comb.”

“Because you groom your ass with it,” she calls after him.

The choreographer is named Marie. She is the woman with the necklaces from the first audition. When Nadia dances and especially when she jumps, Marie watches her with eyes like chips of gravel. “Good,” she says slowly, as though the word is a grave insult.

Nadia is supposed to play a princess who has been trapped in a forest of ice by four skillful brothers and a jaybird. The magician rescues her and brings her to his menagerie. And, because the princess is not on stage much during the first act, Nadia also plays a bear dancing on two legs. The magician falls in love with the bear and the princess falls in love with the magician. Later in the play, the princess tricks the magician into killing the bear by making it look like the bear ate the jaybird. Then Nadia has to play the bear as she dies.

At first, all Nadia’s mistakes are foolish. She lets her face go slack when she’s not the one speaking or dancing and the director has to remind her over and over again that the audience can always see her when she’s on stage. She misses cues. She sings too softly when she’s singing about fish and streams and heavy fur. She sings louder when she’s singing of kingdoms and crowns and dresses, but she can’t seem to remember the words.

“I’m not really an actress,” she tells him, after a particularly disastrous scene.

“I’m not really a director,” Yves says with a shrug. “Who really is what they seem?”

“No,” she says. “You don’t understand. I just came to the audition because my friends were going. And they really aren’t my friends. They’re just people I work with. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Okay, if you’re not an actress,” he asks her, “then what are you?”

She doesn’t answer. Yves signals for one of the golden glitter-covered cages to be moved slightly to the left.

“I probably won’t even stay with the show,” Nadia says. “I’ll probably have to leave after opening night. I can’t be trusted.”

Yves throws up his hands. “Actors! Which of you can be trusted? But don’t worry. We’ll all be leaving. This show tours.”

Nadia expects him to cut her from the cast after every rehearsal, but he never does. She nearly cries with relief.

The goat boy smiles down at her from atop his goat legs. “I have a handkerchief. I’ll throw it to you if you want.”

“I’m fine,” Nadia says, rubbing her wet eyes.

“Lots of people weep after rehearsals.”

“Weird people,” she says, trying to make it a joke.

“If you don’t cry, how can you make anyone else cry? Theater is the last place where fools and the mad do better than regular folks . . . well, I guess music’s a little like that too.” He shrugs. “But still.”

Posters go up all over town. They show the magician in front of gleaming cages with bears and mermaids and foxes and a cat in a dress.

Nadia’s boyfriend doesn’t like all the time she spends away from home. Now, on Saturday nights, she doesn’t wait by the phone. She pushes her milk crate coffee table and salvaged sofa against the wall and practices her steps over and over until her downstairs neighbor bangs on his ceiling.

One night her boyfriend calls and she doesn’t pick up. She just lets it ring.

She has just realized that the date the musical premieres is the next time she is going to change. All she can do is stare at the little black book and her carefully noted temperatures. The ringing phone is like the ringing in her head.

I am so tired I want to die, Nadia thinks. Sometimes the thought repeats over and over and she can’t stop thinking it, even though she knows she has no reason to be so tired. She gets enough sleep. She gets more than enough sleep. Some days, she can barely drag herself from her bed.

Fighting the change only makes it more painful; she knows from experience.

The change cannot be stopped or reasoned with. It’s inevitable. Inexorable. It is coming for her. But it can be delayed. Once, she held on two hours past dusk, her whole body knotted with cramps. Once, she held out until the moon was high in the sky and her teeth were clenched so tight she thought they would shatter. She might be able to make it to the end of the show.

It shouldn’t matter to her. Disappointing people is inevitable. She will eventually get tired and angry and hungry. Someone will get hurt. Her boyfriend will run the pad of his fingers over her canines and she will bite down. She will wake up covered in blood and mud by the side of some road and not be sure what she’s done. Then she’ll be on the run again.

Being a werewolf means devouring your past.

Being a werewolf means swallowing your future.

Methodically, Nadia tears her notebook to tiny pieces. She throws the pieces in the toilet and flushes, but the chunks of paper clog the pipes. Water spills over the side and floods her bathroom with the soggy reminder of inevitability.

The opening night of the Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue, the cast huddle together and wish each other luck. They paint their faces. Nadia’s hand shakes as she draws a new, red mouth over her own. Her skin itches. She can feel the fur inside of her, can smell her sharp, feral musk.

“Are you okay?” the mermaid asks.

Nadia growls softly. She is holding on, but only barely.

Yves is yelling at everyone. The costumers are pinning and duct-taping dresses that have split. Straps tear. Beads bounce along the floor. One of the chorus is scolding a girl who plays a talking goat. A violinist is pleading with his instrument.

“Tonight you are not going to be good,” Marie, the choreographer, says.

Nadia grinds her teeth together. “I’m not good.”

“Good is forgettable.” Marie spits. “Good is common. You are not good. You are not common. You will show everyone what you are made of.”

Under her bear suit, Nadia can feel her arms beginning to ripple with the change. She swallows hard and concentrates on shrinking down into herself. She cannot explain to Marie that she’s afraid of what’s inside of her.

Finally, Nadia’s cue comes and she dances out into a forest of wooden trees on dollies and lets the magician trap her in a gold glitter-covered cage. Her bear costume hangs heavily on her, stinking of synthetic fur.

Performing is different with an audience. They gasp when there is a surprise. They laugh on cue. They watch her with gleaming, wet eyes. Waiting.

Her boyfriend is there, holding a bouquet of white roses. She’s so surprised to see him that her hand lifts involuntarily—as though to wave. Her fingers look too long, her nails too dark, and she hides them behind her back.

Nadia dances like a bear, like a deceitful princess, and then like a bear again. This time as the magician sings about how the jaybird will be revenged, Nadia really feels like he’s talking to her. When he lifts his gleaming wand, she shrinks back with real fear.

She loves this. She doesn’t want to give it up. She wants to travel with the show. She wants to stop going to bed early. She won’t wait by phone. She’s not a fake.

When the jump comes, she leaps as high as she can. Higher than she has at any rehearsal. Higher than in her dreams. She jumps so high that she seems to hang in the air for a moment as her skin cracks and her jaw snaps into a snout.

It happens before she can stop it and then, she doesn’t want it to stop. The change used to be the worst thing she could imagine. No more.

The bear costume sloughs off like her skin. Nadia falls into a crouch, four claws digging into the stage. She throws back her head and howls.

The goat boy nearly topples over. The magician drops his wand. On cue, the mermaid girl begins to sing. The musical goes on.

Roses slip from Nadia’s dentist-boyfriend’s fingers.

In the wings, she can see Marie clapping Yves on the back. Marie looks delighted.

There is a werewolf girl on the stage. It’s Saturday night. The crowd is on their feet. Nadia braces herself for their applause.

© 2010 by Holly Black.
Originally published in Full Moon City,
edited by Martin H. Greenberg & Darrell Schweitzer.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Holly Black

Holly BlackHolly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), The Modern Faerie Tale series, The Good Neighbors graphic novel trilogy (with Ted Naifeh), and her new Curse Workers series, which includes White Cat and Red Glove. She has been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award, a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award. She currently lives in New England with her husband, Theo, in a house with a secret door.