Once upon a time, there was a girl who had an official name – the name on her birth certificate, a name for bureaucrats and people who didn’t know her well – and a true name. The true name was Thing.
Thing was taught charts and graphs early on. She knew one’s beautiful years must be maximized for profit.
Thing was not symmetrically beautiful, but this too was an asset to be maximized – rich men with brains got bored of traditional beauty, the same set of breasts, the same set of lips, they weren’t collectibles. If you broke one, you could always get another.
Thing’s looks and intelligence made her a collectible. Rich men with brains came up to her at parties and lit her cigarettes for her and informed her of the fact. “If I broke you, I couldn’t get another of you,” they said.
Intelligence was problematic, though. It wouldn’t be bought. Instead it cried out inside her like a child lost in a fairy tale forest, worried about the possibility that there were creatures with teeth in it.
Intelligence wouldn’t let Thing sleep at night. And the men next to her couldn’t sleep either. And men like that valued sleep.
To be perfectly honest, intelligence always had it in for Thing.
It caused her much suffering when she was young, because she couldn’t figure out who she was. This upset the boys.
Things were supposed to be things, boys knew that, their mothers and fathers and gods and televisions had taught them, and a thing that didn’t act accordingly was engaged in false advertising.
She deserved to be punished, and punished she was, painfully and repeatedly, in a way that left marks.
The marks of pain spread inside Thing and grew darker. The darkness covered more and more territory and became a breakaway republic. There was war there, and death, and yowling cats, and cockroaches whispering across cracked plaster inside lightless buildings.
Thing liked it, though she would not say so, aware of the fact that nobody would light her cigarettes at parties if she let on about what was going on inside her, and lighter fluid was expensive, truth be told.
In high school, Thing had been an ugly duckling – you’d think that this would’ve forced her to open up to the possibility that if no man wanted her to be his thing, she could try being human. But nobody taught a class on being human. There weren’t any pamphlets she could read.
So Thing went through life and paused in the archways of the night and listened for the wolves who could always smell the darkness on her.
Right as she was aging out of that life period wherein she was supposed to find a rich man whose life she could ruin, Thing, feeling her body being slowly being pulled toward the hungry mouth of the grave, developed artistic ambitions. There wasn’t much else to do.
In pursuit of Art, which was always walking out the side door and disappearing into the night, Thing met different people. They didn’t know much about riches, but knew something about being a person.”You’re a person too,” they pointed out to Thing. “See? You have a heart. And there – you have a smile. And you have a disease.”
“Intelligence, I know,” said Thing.
“You suffer from talent too.”
“Oh dear,” said Thing.
The truth was, Thing liked having a heart and a smile. She wore them well. They went with her intelligence and talent and made them seem as though they weren’t just deadly diseases.
But a very perceptive wolf smelled the darkness on Thing and heard the war inside of her and he liked it. And he goaded Thing toward him, and promised Thing things, and then he had her alone.
“Please!” sobbed poor Thing. “Please, please, don’t! I’m a person! I’m a person!”
He didn’t listen. In his grip, Thing shattered and tore. Her heart rolled under the bed. Her smile was tossed out the window and trampled by alcoholics coming home on the last bus of the evening.
The heart and smile had fused deep into Thing, had linked up to tissue, had grown capillaries, and Thing bled now, she ran screaming and bleeding through the streets, and people were confused and annoyed, and stepped out of her way, lest she get blood all over their clothes.
“Please kill me!” begged Thing of everyone she came across, but nobody could be bothered.
The world, after all, is a crackerjack, it has a design, and the design mirrors itself and thus perpetuates itself. And the war inside Thing reflected onto every surface, and turned the darkness inside out, and spread it across her path like butter.
“Please kill me!” Thing kept begging. Eventually she came across a man leaning against a wall. He had no job and had nothing to do, and he said, “OK.”
Thing hired the man to kill her. They signed a contract in front of witnesses. Thing wore a white dress for the occasion and drank sparkling wine. It was all very official.
The killer took too long though. He also had the intelligence disease, and it made his aim suffer. Another case of false advertising.
Thing was furious. She was always goading her killer into finishing the job, and he was always failing at it.
The intelligence coursed through the killer, lively like blood, and combined with Thing’s intelligence. As it often happens when fluids are mixed carelessly together, a child was born.
The child looked like Thing and it looked like the killer, and this made both Thing and killer pensive when the latter wasn’t chasing the former up the stairs.
“Let’s re-write the contract,” the killer said to half-dead Thing in the mornings, as he made her breakfast in their hovel. “I don’t want to kill you anymore.”
“I HATE YOU,” said Thing.
The killer’s intelligence and talent got in touch with Thing’s intelligence and talent. The latter two lived in the darkness now, in the breakaway republic inside Thing, where a war was always being waged, whether out of duty or inertia. They could still be goaded to pass through the checkpoints and out into the light, because they got bored in the dark, where skeletons mouldered and the air raid sirens went off so frequently that they went hoarse.
The two intelligences and the two talents formed a quartet. Rude as always, Art showed up unannounced, to live within their unseen bonds between them. The quartet gave up on Thing and her killer altogether. The quartet did quartet stuff. People were always applauding it.
In the morning, when her killer made her breakfast, Thing stared out the window of their hovel at God’s world, where people went about their business, and the quartet was doing quartet stuff on the sidewalk.
People threw change at the quartet’s feet and it sparkled. The quartet played. The child who looked like Thing and her killer danced to the music.
“Come out!” called the quartet. “Come out!” called the child.
Thing’s thing-like eyes filled up with tears. They shone in the sun and were indistinguishable from the change at the quartet’s feet on the sidewalk – the only difference that Thing could buy nothing with her tears, they existed for their own sake.
The tears reflected back the sunlight and scattered it across indifferent surfaces and set them ablaze and people passing by warmed themselves by the fires and went on their way again. Thing cried harder.
“Why are you crying?” the killer asked, turning away from his omelet.
“Because I could have been a rich man’s wife.”
Thing cried and cried, she cried so hard that the crying curdled inside her and turned to laughter, and the killer laughed too, and the omelet was burned, the true victim in this story.
For my beloved father-in-law, Nikolai Petrovich.
The banner image is by Helmut Newton.