What is the woman but a keeper of fear?
What is the woman but a gate?
If all goes well, when the story ends, the woman-who-is-a-gate will be opened.
Where will the fear go then? Who will hold it, who will keep it safe?
• • • •
Alta owns the Menagerie: a twin-gabled, brown shingled colossus. The whole house sits on the eastern edge of a square green park on Larkin Street, and is teethed with a row of white windows that overlook the street where Alta stands, having walked this early morning from North Beach to Russian Hill. Her reflection gleams in oiled blacks and white, caught in a larger dormer window inset beneath the gabled roof. The new sun sketches the line of distant rooftops behind; roughly, and then fine. The reflection in the window bleeds, burns in the new light, and twists into something no longer a woman.
Alta has lived in San Francisco for many years, though nowhere near her whole life. She has watched the city bloom and wilt and bloom again. She likes it most in the early mornings, when she counts the stars that blink out of the auroral sky. The counting is like breathing, something she hardly notices.
Still, it is nice to stop. Once the door has shut behind her, once she crosses the threshold, she can. She moves quickly up the stairs. What she reaches, on the landing, is the closest thing to church that she can enter. The ceiling yawns over her, a cathedral. Honey bright beams of redwood steeple overhead, as though she is standing beneath a forest that has decided, all at once, to bow its heads together.
Inside of the large dormer window that overlooks the street, three live rabbits, two white and one brown, startle inside an elaborate glass display. They hop back and forth through their transparent world. They smell her; and what they smell, they fear. Alta watches the rabbits flick their velvet ears. Her lips curl; her yellow fangs gleam.
• • • •
I meet Alta through Victoria. Victoria knows Alta because they are both black, both watching their city wilt and bloom; bloom and rot. Victoria and I have been together for seven months. We met on a dating app.
Last month, Victoria inherited a lot of money.
It’s from her white mother’s side. A grandmother died, left a half million dollars to Victoria, her brother, and her sister. Each. I am quietly impressed.
She tells me she wants to invest it, to make money off of having money. She doesn’t ask if I will help her invest, but I think she should. I’m good with money. I tell her, of course babe. And take your time. You know, I’m happy to give you some pointers. She looks at me with one eyebrow raised. I smile, place my hands on either side of her face and kiss her lips.
The morning I meet Alta, she tells me she wants to take me somewhere. There is one thing she wants to do first, she says. An investment that she now has enough money to make.
“Alta asked me to bring you,” she says. “She wants to see what you’re like.” I try not to flinch, but I know my face twitches, just a little, before I smooth it again.
This is how I learn about the Menagerie: about its secrets, about its fear.
• • • •
It is 1815 in what is now called San Francisco, and a woman has arrived by water. It is forty-four years before California’s first governor tries to pass a law banning black people from the state. It is the same year that Sara Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus, is being ordered to sit, stand, and turn in the cage she inhabits alongside a baby rhinoceros, in Paris, France. She is studied by the French, led by one George Cuvier, a naturalist. They find her to be, in many ways, more interesting and exciting than the baby rhinoceros. They find her horrifying, exhilarating, and humiliating. They keep her, and they watch her. In the end, she dies: of syphilis or pneumonia, it is said. Really, she dies of their fear.
The woman in San Francisco is both long in the tooth and broad in the shoulder; brown as a long summer, and strong. And though the phrase long in tooth means she is old, there is also something about her teeth. How they flash when she bears them against the men who grab at her as she walks through the hills of this new city at night. She carries a pile of furs on her shoulders. When she gets to the neighborhood she has been told to visit, she mentions her Russian mother. She speaks fluently, can even recite poetry to the particular delight of some of the older women and men. They ask if they are her own verse. She demurs. This is the era of Pushkin: a rumor spreads, like a virus, that she is an estranged sister or cousin. They ask her how she gets her furs. She tells them, meeting the eyes of the men who have gathered around, that they are the skins of her family, dropped at their feet like robes when they changed into humans at daybreak. The group of men laugh and hit their knees and shake their heads. When she laughs, it is not with them.
• • • •
Alta is covered in tattoos. This is what I notice first. Leopards rendered in fine black and gold hover on her chest, snarling and dangling heavy paws beneath long bellies. A peacock spreads itself up her left arm in deep blues and shimmering silver. When she opens her arms to Victoria, it is like I am watching the bird unwrap itself; as though Victoria disappears beneath her plumage. “Hey baby,” Victoria says from within the embrace.
Alta releases her with a shake of feathered skin and turns to me. On her right arm, now angled toward me, a brace of jackrabbits leap from a steel trap, splattering scarlet blood from a severed hind foot. A corded vine of flowers winds from beneath the V of her black t-shirt, slips behind the leopard to circle her neck. For a moment, as she leans to hug me, I think it is rope, rough, real. I smell metallic dirt, cotton fiber. I see the indent where it tugs against her brown skin, can see dark drops of blood. But no, it is sweat sliding down her neck to collect in the hollow of her clavicle. I look at her, and she is an animal I want to taste the salt of; to lick, to suck.
“Is something wrong?” Alta asks.
“Your tattoos,” I say, straightening. I trace the curve of a leopard’s belly on my own chest. “They interest me.” Victoria grips my hand and shakes her head. I squeeze back. I smile.
“My siblings,” Alta says.
“You keep your siblings quite close.”
“Sometimes they try to get away.” She holds up her arm to show me the rabbits, the bloody foot twitching as she twists her wrist back and forth. The rabbits gaze forward into nothing as they move this way and that. I grab her arm to hold it still. Her fingers, when they pinch my wrist, squeeze until it hurts. “Don’t do that,” she says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just wanted a better look.”
Victoria apologizes for me. She explains that I am a writer, that I grew up in the Midwest, that I am still learning about boundaries. I think about the feel of Alta’s arm in my hands: muscle and blood; a constellation of ink; the family twisting over her skin.
“So this is the Menagerie,” I say, when I feel Victoria has said enough. I imagine what it will be like when I meet her mother, the white queen whom Victoria only talks about sideways. I’ll deal with that meeting when it happens. For now, I look at Alta. I think about being a leopard on her chest. I think about the wilderness beneath her skin.
I turn to the house that has stood above us while we talk, listing forward to remind us of its own silence. I pull Victoria with me toward the front door. A wide brass plaque to the left says:
The Black Menagerie
Above and below the signage floral filigree twines around muscular bodies of monkeys, lizards, tigers, a snake.
“Are you ready?” Alta asks from behind us. I don’t know what to be ready for: what to hide, what to reveal. Victoria nods but doesn’t check with me. I catch my face; it’s her money, her thing, I’m just here for the ride. Still, I reach for the doorknob, turn it without asking.
• • • •
What is a body but a keeper of fear? Let me tell you about two bodies. The first is a man. Or at least the sheddings of a man. His remains are found inside his apartment: a deflated sack. There is blood. Something about it suggests an animal attack. A lion or a tiger; or maybe a giant bird of prey; or an animal you and I have never heard of. It depends on where we are in the world. It depends on what kind of stories are told.
The police who investigate must knock down the door; it is locked from the inside. The apartment is empty, save for what remains of the man’s body. The doctor who performs the autopsy notices the strangest thing: the way the flesh has been torn almost in one long sleeve. It is as clear as it is preposterous. This man’s skin was pulled from the viscera and skeleton in one smooth movement—like shucking an ear of corn—by something with long teeth, bone-breaking jaws. There is no sign of the animal. Where did it go? Where will it live?
The second man is found dead outside of his apartment. His body is mangled beyond recognition. It does not even appear human. The crowd describes a terrifying scene.
It was a tiger, says one.
A crazed baboon, leaping at my face, says another.
A rhinoceros. It came directly at me, one woman swears.
At you? I ask.
Of course, I say, backing up ever so slightly. I know what did this. They regard me curiously. Isn’t it obvious? I say. What is more ferocious than fear?
Maybe the first man was a cage, ripped open from the inside by something he could not control. But the second man? Maybe the second man could not protect himself from what escaped. Maybe the second man stood outside an open door.
Do you sense my judgment? It is true, I am not neutral. I am a storyteller, I am a keeper of things. Let me tell you something: a door doesn’t open on only one side.
• • • •
Alta shuts the door behind us. Her fingers brush my arm as she moves past me to start up the great, winding staircase. Green ferns and broad-leafed trees squat in planters, extend from the ceilings, and spiral along the staircase. In the center of the main room, a large brass bed with a stretched canopy is made with draping silk sheets, and dozens of soft pillows. Everything else is wood in dripping, hypnotic grain patterns, and decadent burnished copper. Light plunges through the double row of windows along the front and slants in rectangles across the floor. It gives the impression that we are standing on a smooth, light-filled pool.
I feed the rabbits while Victoria and Alta sprawl on the bed, talking in low voices. I look at my phone and see a text. Call me when u can. I tap the number, and hold the phone to my ear.
“Why don’t you take that privately?” Alta appears at my side, and leads me to the southern wall, pushing at an accented panel in the wood. It swings open. She presses me gently inside, assures me that she and Victoria have things to discuss anyways. The door swings closed behind me and I panic as the seams disappear into the floral wallpaper—throat jumping, vision narrowing—until my eyes find the silver door knob set into the wall.
I press the dial tone up against my ear and pray she won’t answer. She picks up, voice strained and abrupt. No pleasantries. Over the phone, my mother tells me that my father is losing too much weight, his skin is sagging from his face. He cannot keep his muscles from melting off his bones.
“And what is the next step?” I keep asking.
She ignores my question and tells me more about the weight, the color, the feel of his skin. “Like paper,” she says, “He feels like a paper bag that can blow off in the wind.”
Let him blow away then, I think. Everybody in my family leaves. They exercise themselves away, or drink themselves away, or work themselves away. My father is drinking himself away. I tell her I will come home soon. I tell myself I will come home soon. I hang up, I let go. I’m done with being left.
I take in the room around me. A library mezzanine flooded with light. Rows and rows of books, a sliding ladder set on rails; so many stories. I trace my fingers along the spines of a row of books as I walk. Beside me, the floor drops away into an atrium lit by panes of glass set aslant in the eaves above me, and a wall of windows around the lower floor. It is full of so many plants I wonder whether I have found a greenhouse, an indoor jungle, whether I have wandered into the menagerie proper. It is so beautiful.
Whose money is this? I wonder. Who can keep so many stories? So many living things?
I hear fronds rub wetly below me. Palm fans twitch as their lower leaves are tugged out of place. Something snorts, low and vulgar. Or perhaps I imagine that. I am not in the city; I am not in California; I am nowhere I have ever been. I lean over the railing. I whisper, “Who is there? Why have you come to spy on me?”
When I re-enter the main room, Victoria has finished talking to Alta. She stands, outlined against an open space, and looks out the window. She turns when she hears me come in and reaches for my hand.
“Baby,” she says. “We can go.”
“Where’s Alta?” I ask.
• • • •
I wonder aloud when I’ll be let in on the secret of “the ménage-a-trois.” Victoria does not answer; just flicks a look in my direction. I also wonder what Alta thought of me, but I’m not going to come out and ask. She walks a couple of paces ahead of me, heeled leather boots clacking on the sidewalk, fists tucked into balls at her side. When she stops, it’s so abrupt we almost collide.
“Who were you talking to?” she asks. Hands on my shoulders, eyes knuckling into mine. She’s only a few inches taller than me, but I find myself leaning back slightly.
“Editor,” I say lightly.
“Oh yeah?” Her eyebrow raises in . . . pleasure? Skepticism? “What’d he say?” She cocks her head and smiles. Pleasure, then.
“He says I’m good at telling stories.” I smile without my teeth or my eyes, but I still get a laugh from her. I watch her square shoulders sashay away from me, watch her launch a bodily assault against the cold. Her confidence magnetizes me. I realize, not for the first time, watching her body that belongs only to her that I want to keep her. I want her to be mine.
I want her never to leave.
• • • •
There is a current, a salted drink, an ocean of something running through this story. It is cold, and black, and deep. It has teeth. The teeth do not belong to the ocean; they belong to the prehistoric, rough finned sharks that use the ocean to get to where they need to go. But as long as they are in the ocean, the ocean can use them, too. Imagine a hand, long and trembling, reaching into the ocean. Imagine it picking up a small, clear pebble: salt-smoothed, tumbled by time. The pebble, too, has used the ocean, its currents, to travel more slowly than the fish, from one place to another. The hand has been waiting, it feels like forever, to pick up this pebble. To use this stone for a conjure. Imagine the shark, whose purpose, for now, is to find a use for their teeth. Now imagine the hand, bloody. Now imagine the ocean, red. Now imagine the body, frantic. Now imagine the shark, sated. Now imagine the pebble, tumbling. And what has become of the conjure?
• • • •
I wake in the middle of the night to somebody calling my name. Victoria’s back is curled, warm and comforting, against mine. By the time my mind has followed itself up and out of sleep, I hear only my own heartbeat and Victoria’s breathing. But no. There is something else: heavy, and wet, and large. I try to turn to face Victoria, to push my lips against her ear.
Baby, I whisper; I think I whisper. Can you hear it? It’s coming. It’s here.
She mumbles in her sleep, reaches around to grab my arm and pull it across her. Sleep baby, she says; I think she says.
I see something move in the corner, by the door. A dark shape: a woman covered in fur, a tooth gleaming in the moonlight. I try to sit up, but my chest is heavy, like an ocean of water is being pressed upon me. I try to cry out, but my mouth is full of pebbles; slippery, salty.
When I wake the next morning, I remember wild dreams of glistening fur and shining teeth. I turn to look for Victoria and find the bed empty and cold on her side.
My memory slides into place and it’s like a hand clamped over my mouth. I stop breathing. I remember Victoria putting on her jacket. Victoria saying, “Night baby, get some sleep.” Victoria closing the door on her way out. She did not spend the night. She went home.
I try not to think of Alta, of wrestling a pair of leopards, of being tangled in feathers, of suffocating.
• • • •
The woman in San Francisco in 1815 goes to the Farallons for ten years. The stories say that she traps the seals that hump the rocky shores with her bare hands and her teeth. They say that she is half-woman, half-beast; that she swims through the icy waters with a family of sharks; that she hunts, eats, kills with them. They say that the ink black nights are filled with the dying screams of seals, with the woman’s deepthroated laughs. They say that she steps from the black waters at daybreak, naked as a baby, water slipping from her body, eyes bright as eels. They say she is responsible, single-handedly, for driving the seal population to near extinction. By the time she is ready to leave the islands, in the mid-1820s, San Francisco has become a colony. It is a site of genocide and enslavement, and will be hostile to her if it discovers who and what she is. She has wrung this coast of its seals, in any case, has exchanged their furs for a fortune. And so she disappears.
• • • •
A week later, we stand on the porch of The Menagerie, waiting to be let in. It is cold; I can feel the fog through the canvas of my jacket, through my jeans, along my scalp. Victoria has just reshaved my head. I wish I had worn a hat. The cold in Tulsa is different. It grips you, it throws your body up and down its hills, and when you land, you don’t get up. But the cold in San Francisco feels like it has moved into my bones, as though it is turning me into fog from the inside out. I am tired; I have not been sleeping well at all. My body aches; I feel bruised at my hips.
“You sure she said I could come?” I ask again.
“She asked that you come. I told you.” Victoria is annoyed that I am asking her again. And still, my stomach twitches, my throat feels like something’s grabbed it from the inside. I know that she sees the shadows beneath my eyes, that she has noticed how sunken my cheeks have become. She doesn’t ask about it.
Alta opens the door. I haven’t seen her face since the last time we were here. And yet, I feel like I know her. I feel like I have seen her, again and again and again. Her face unsettles me somehow, like I am remembering a dream. But my stomach kicks with pleasure. I smile, I can’t help it.
When Victoria goes into the room behind the closed door, Alta stays. Whether to watch me, or be watched, I don’t know. She sits herself on a window seat, and looks. No phone, no book, just sitting and looking. I guess she must be watching me.
“What do you do, actually?” I fidget with my notebook. I had thought I would write, but with Alta so near, I can only fumble out questions, one after the other. “Is there a pet store in back? Will Victoria bring me a dog? Why do you call it the Menagerie?” I can’t remember the last time I spoke so much.
“If she didn’t tell you,” she says. A smile opens her face, and she raises her arms, as though she is helpless to do anything. As Alta shrugs, her leopards stretch, like they are waking up. “As for the Menagerie . . .” She pauses. “A bit of a joke.”
“I don’t understand.” Another smile, and one of her shrugs. I would be annoyed, if there wasn’t something enchanting about her. Her face, the way she looks at me. “That’s how it is?”
“That’s how it is.”
“I see. So where are your people from?” I ask.
“Do you really want to know? Why?”
“Is there something wrong with wanting to know about you?”
“No,” she says, and as she says it, I feel that she is debating whether to tell me a truth or a lie. An impulse to assure her, rises in my mouth. Yes, I can be trusted, tell me a truth. It is a strange impulse. “But my people,” she continues. “We were all from far away. Everyone else is gone now.”
“But you keep them on your body?”
“Oh these? These are to remember.” She shifts against the light, and for a moment she is only an outline against the glare of winter light behind her, the sun entering the room and giving me her shape only, the remark of her body, sitting here for me. Before I can ask her what she means, by remembering, she asks where I am from, where my people are.
“And you came here?”
“I did, didn’t I?” I feel that I am being played with, that something is padding beneath our words, winding itself around my feet. Tilting me off balance.
“Well, clearly.” She raises an eyebrow at me.
“And you, you enjoy reading?” I ask. She laughs, shakes her head at me, and there is something so natural, so guileless in the gesture that I forget to be guarded. To be inscrutable. “Not even with all those books?” I nod toward the library.
“Those belong to the person who sold this house to me,” she says. “They are the one who loved stories so much. You must, too. If you write them.” As she keeps her eyes on mine for longer than necessary, flicking her gaze down and over me, I feel that she is flirting with me. I realize, with pleasure, that she wants me.
“Yeah, I do,” I say, without even deciding. “I love books. I love writing them. Maybe this sounds weird, but it’s a way to make things, or ideas, or people, stay. Once I’ve written something down, it can’t leave. Not in the same way. It’s how—well, it’s my way of keeping my family close. Like your tattoos.”
For a moment, something flickers in Alta’s face, like a curtain twitched open. I have tilted her balance, too. I am startled and disappointed when Victoria returns, shifting something, as though on purpose, as though she has thrown a stone into still water just to see it break. Resentment, surprise at it, spreads through my chest.
“Okay,” Victoria says to Alta. There is something hard at the bottom of her voice; a warning.
“Okay,” Alta says back. And I see it again, the rope, its catch against her skin. I do not know how to meet her eyes before I leave, I do not know what to say. As we are leaving, Victoria and I, something sags in Alta, like whatever is beneath her skin has deflated.
• • • •
Once, there was a woman who could turn into a witch. She would step out of her skin at night, and take the form of whatever most scared the people she haunted. She became so used to changing her skins, that over time she forgot which skin was her own. This is an old story, this is a very old story.
• • • •
When Alta leaves the Menagerie for the night, she begins to count again. This time, she counts the stars that emerge in the sky above her, one by one by one. She thinks about her family, about her old betrayal. She thinks about Victoria, and the money she has paid for her service. She thinks about me. And for the first time in many years, she thinks of pleasure.
• • • •
When the woman returns to San Francisco, nearly one hundred years have passed. It is the early 1920s. And yet, her body looks no older than it did when she last left. It looks, in fact, younger. A young woman, broad of shoulder, brown as summer. She considers, first, landing in Los Angeles, where there are more people like her. In the end, she returns to the place that feels most like home. She goes to the old neighborhood, and she finds a house that she loves: brown-shingled, twin-gabled. She purchases it for cash, double the asking price.
Since she left, she has traveled through many countries, listened to many stories, and been received by many people. She has felt how these people react to her broad shoulders, her strong manner, her sharp teeth. Mostly, she learns about fear. She learns that people do not understand fear: they do not know how to care for it. She learns that people do not know that fear, like an animal, must be tended, must be kept safe.
When she arrives back in her city, she feels the changes that have occurred over the past century, since she was last thought of as Pushkin’s lost relative. She is now thought of as “black,” as though a color could contain her. Over the next forty years, more and more people—black, both like and unlike her—arrive in the city to find work in the area known as Hunter’s Point. And as more black people arrive, fear circles them like sharks.
White people, lighter brown people, react to their skin like a haunt. When the woman goes out, walking through this city that she thought of as her own, in the body she has thought of as her own (the woman, broad and brown) the people she passes tense their shoulders and widen their eyes. They stiffen their bodies, and ready their fear to leap at her, claws outstretched.
She is no stranger to what fear can do to a body. She knows how to pull fear from people, to ride it out of them—because fear needs to be kept, and her body can keep it better than ours—but it has always been a choice, a relationship. Rituals are followed; roles are acknowledged. A door or a window is left open, and thus she is invited in to complete the haunt. Afterwards, they are tired, sore, with sunken eyes and cheeks. But the fear is no longer amorphous, uncontained. It is kept by her; and in her, it is transformed. It becomes story, myth, tale. It binds people together, does not rend them apart.
Here, she watches as one man, walking home late at night, is accosted by white police. They beat him without mercy, and later claim that they feared for their lives. She sees a young boy, small and lively, skin brown as earth, chased for miles through city streets by a white man who claims the boy was threatening him. He barely escapes with his life. She sees white women cross streets away from black men; sees the same white women cross the street away from her. After these encounters, fear is left to stalk the streets—kept by no one, wild and mad and ferocious.
She has no power over this new fear, wide and choiceless and destructive. She does not understand its mechanism. She has never seen people act in this way, so uniform in their destruction. Despite everything she knows, she begins to wonder whether she (whether Blackness) is causing their reactions. Whether beneath her exquisite skins—the smooth brown human, the slick gray wolf, the rough silver shark—there lives something horrible. She wonders whether this may be her truest self. When she realizes she is wondering this, she feels a shame so profound that it threatens to erase her, to swallow everything and anything else that she might be.
She spends days alone in her mansion, stalking skinless through its glass paned atrium, hovering at its cathedral ceiling, trying to change herself from the inside out. She spends another century thus, alone and uncontained. There are moments when she feels a breakthrough, when she feels, certain in her solitude, that she is not who they think. Maybe she is something different entirely, something quite as large but not as terrible. And then she goes out; her reflection twists and distorts, bleeds and burns, and she is a woman no longer.
If this is how they see her, this is what she will be, she decides. She will haunt them, without their permission, without their consent. She will take as much of their fear as she can, though she cannot possibly take all of it.
She will keep one thing for herself: her name. She calls herself Alta, for the mountain she met in Spain, for the trees, the sky, the stars.
• • • •
Alone in the Menagerie, past midnight, Alta stalks from room to room. She is so, so tired of this. Tired of a million nights of shedding her skin, a million dawns of returning, a million nightmares kept inside her body. Over the years, she has become known for her service, sought after, and paid (bought) to haunt. But she is tired of taking without asking. She is tired of relationships without mutuality.
And she is thinking of someone else for the first time in a century; about a body as something other than a thing to be used, to be taught a lesson. She thinks about it as a thing that could be touched. She thinks about someone with smooth, pale skin that is hot with pleasure, rather than damp with fear. About all of the subtle ways to make a mouth gasp for air. She thinks about what it might feel like to run her fingers down my stomach. About how my skin could be delicious and my body could be a joy. She thinks about how she could ride me.
Still, she has made a promise. So she does what she has done a million times before. She stands in the middle of the atrium, and pulls her shirt over her head, pushes her jeans down over her bare feet and steps out of them. And then she pulls off her skin, up and over her skull. She folds it, and leaves it in a safe place until she returns.
Some like her do not take on other shapes. They leave their skin and fly, pure spirit. In this city, she prefers to be a cat, black and powerful and six feet at the shoulders. She leaps and tumbles over the hills of the city, over apartment building roofs, up condominium fire escapes, through closed doors if she pleases, but mostly past sleeping bodies on the sidewalks that she sniffs, and licks, and purrs over, and pads beyond. Most people do not stop long enough to see her glide by; they feel a crackle in the air, like a firecracker has popped just behind them.
When she arrives where she has been sent, she drops her cat skin and becomes whatever that person she has been paid to haunt fears the most: spirit, or fairy, or hag, or ghost, or simply a crushing presence on their chest. She makes them gasp, makes them groan. Sometimes she grips their throats with her fingers, or paws, or claws, or long, coiled body, and whispers in their ears. She conjures their fear, draws it out of their bodies until it becomes almost a living thing, a spirit in the room with them.
Sometimes the fear, unlocked from human chests, chokes her. Stabs her in her heart. Shoots her, point blank, in each of her eyes. And still, she does not crumple.
Fear me, she says. Fear me. For I cannot be killed.
And then she leaves. She keeps the fear. She keeps her clientele safe.
The clientele are, exclusively, wealthy and black. The haunted are, usually, powerful and white.
• • • •
Think of fear, then, as an animal in its own sense. Think of it as something that lives in our bodies. That is trapped inside.
Alta is the woman who can shed her skin, who can slip into keyholes, who can ride a person as they sleep. The old stories say that she carries fear with her, that she brings it to her victims as they sleep: innocent, harmless. The old stories are wrong. The fear is already inside of them: locked, caged, and ready to explode. She sets the fear free. She rides it. When she’s done, the fear curls like a kitten with its head on its paws.
Have you seen what fear, set free, not tended to, not cared for, can do? Have you seen Sara Baartman, caged and killed by other people’s fear? We have all seen bodies punctured by fear. I don’t have to tell you what it looks like, feels like.
• • • •
Victoria rises from the bed where we have been lying, her eyebrows arched, the look of confusion on her face a moment ago replaced by still contempt. “What did you just say to me?”
“I didn’t say—I didn’t mean—” I stammer. My heart is racing, my mind blanking. She is misunderstanding me. I had been trying to explain how she could help me open. How if she just promised to belong to me, and only me, I would feel safe enough to let her in.
“Alta was right—you people can never feel fucking safe unless you’re in control. That shit runs too deep in you.” She stands and pulls her shirt over her head, slides in her pants.
“Alta?” I am confused. What does Alta have to do with this? “Where are you going?” I ask. I grab her wrist, my finger and thumb circling the whole narrow thing, and jerk her back towards me. I could break it, if I wanted to. All I would have to do is squeeze. Something is clamoring inside my chest: a thing with teeth and claws, pushing at my lungs, making it harder to breathe. And then I see Victoria’s face—fear, etched clean and harsh and plain. I drop her wrist. “I’m so sorry. Please don’t leave,” I say.
Of course she leaves, just like that.
I cannot keep her.
• • • •
When she is gone, I open my computer. I have been researching the house on Russian Hill, its title, who owns it, where they came from. I look up books—titles I saw in the library. When I am done reading, I write. A story about fear, about a beautiful woman, about love. I know how to tell stories. I know how to keep things.
• • • •
How will you end this story? Alta asks me, breathing in my ear. Her lips brush against my neck, she trails a finger down my stomach, she lays her body along the line of me, and suddenly I have expanded to fill the space my body fills; then the bed, the room, beyond the room. My entire body is alive, electrified. My pulse is a living drum between my legs. My heart is like a tiger, pressing itself against my ribs, waiting to be released. Let me in, she whispers.
And will I?
It can be a terrible thing, actually, to be open.
• • • •
I wake; I think I wake, my lips parted and waiting, my hands clutching my sheets, my body shrunken once again, pacing inside itself, clawing at its door.
My mother calls, and I answer. My father is gone, she says. She hasn’t been able to reach him in days. I need to come home.
Everyone leaves. What good is being open if people can walk right in and out of your life?
• • • •
There are many stories where the woman, her work, is not understood. Where she is burned alive. Or her skin is destroyed. Or her spirit flayed. She is destroyed, in order to destroy the fear that she keeps. There are other stories where the woman is kept. In these stories, there are words to say, salt to be spread, threats to be made.
• • • •
I have read the books about conjure women. I have learned the stories. I wait until past midnight. I creep into a front window of the Menagerie; I know she has left it unlocked for me. I search for what I am looking for: Alta’s skin, folded like a shirt. And then I wait.
I feel her before I hear her. A presence that is warm, and bright like a star. I hear her padding behind me, feel a warm, square head push into my shoulder. I pull back.
I hold her skin in my arms, my feet grit against the salt I have poured on the floor. I feel the surprise that ripples through her body before she tenses against me. I think, for a moment, of what it would feel like to hold her with love, rather than keep her with fear; to rub her arms, her stomach, her legs, her neck. I think of my tongue. I think of tenderness and asking.
And then, fear rises in my chest. I look up at her glittering amber eyes set wide above me. Hear the growl rumbling low in her throat. I do not think of her other body or of what it holds. I think of being alone—Victoria gone, my father in his own world, my mother lost in her search for him—and fear pools through me like water from a spring.
“You haunted me,” I say. It is not a question.
“You didn’t finish.”
Alta looks at me. I know she is giving me a chance to take it back, to undo what I have already done. My hand twitches, wants to hand her back her skin, and then stills. “No,” she says, long teeth flashing. “I wanted you to choose.”
“Why make me choose? Why not just finish it? Take the money and let us be.”
Alta raises a paw to her mouth and licks it. “I won’t answer if you insist on pretending not to know the why.”
I think about Alta, the way she looked at me and the desire in her eyes. I know the why. I wonder whether she believes I can become safe on my own, without her haunt, her magic. “Can I be safe? How can I be safe?”
“How can you be safe,” she says, and it’s like a purr and a laugh. “You ask about your safety while you hold my skin. I cannot begin to teach you how to be safe. How to ask. How to open. Will you give me my skin?”
“I can’t,” I say, and I feel I am being an infant, a terrible baby. “If I give it to you, you will leave.”
“Please, give me my skin.”
“Will you? Leave me?”
“If I can, yes,” she says. For a moment, I think she will lunge at me, will bare her teeth, will raise her claws. But I do not flinch.
I make up my mind. I have her skin, after all. If she will not stay with me, then I will keep her.
And just like that, I am no longer afraid.
• • • •
I said, if everything went well, the gate would be open.
I said, we split along our contradictions.
I said, there are teeth, there is blood, the pebble is lost, the conjure incomplete.
I said, I am not neutral. I am a storyteller, I am a keeper of things.
Spread the word!