I knocked. She opened the door, swatting her black jets of hair into the humid summer night. The first thing she said to me was:
“Do you want to help me make the beast with two backs?”
“Yes.” I said, blushing red and full of excitement. And suddenly at a loss for words.
“Good.” she said. “Come in, then.” And pulled me inside.
But I should back up and tell you how I got here.
It’s been four miserable, critically-underrated years since I last saw Isabella. When I was young, she was my Roxanne and my Cyrano, my Rosalind and my Romeo, my Beatrice and my Snicket. We swore, when I jetted to Hollywood, that we’d fan our love with the long and ample flames of fame and passion.
Isabella said she’d love me even if I ran off with a Swedish actress more ravishing than Ingmar Bergman. Even if I forgot, in my good fortune, our dark and illicit affair. Even if I made trash films filled with actresses made up as Isabella, in stories that humiliated and defamed her. Even if I fell in love with someone else.
My first week in Hollywood, working on The Monster of Paris, I toiled all hours god sent making it into a better film. After a week I came to the horrid, kidney-dropping realisationthat I’d not called Isabella. I flushed with the thought that she sat by the phone, wretched with dismissal. Her rich and beautiful dark hair wrapped on her finger nail, and twisted at the crease of her lip, and crammed with miserable dry tears.
I couldn’t bear to phone her.
A month went by and still I didn’t call. I thought of her wracked with sobs and fears. And borne up, her noble chin upraised, by thoughts of my blossoming career. And not complaining.
So I didn’t call.
In four months I started work on The Other Secret of Eleanor Roosevelt. I thought of Isabella all the time. But I never rang. On set, and since, I had any number of lovers and torrid affairs. They’re none of your business.
Four years passed. If you’re not famous in Hollywood, four years can pass and have nothing to show. Four years can be ignored by producers and flounder in the papers. When I came back to Sydney for Christmas, I had my man arrange a time to meet up with Isabella. I didn’t want to talk to her first. I didn’t want the chance to back out, or get cold shoulders.
I wrote the directions down on a sliver of paper and stuffed them in my wallet. The sky was waxing to asphalt grey off the red slur of sunset. It was forming into a storm. The wind rose.
I stood outside the little gate of my rented terrace with my hands in my pockets. The night air was warm and moist. And expectant of rain, but I’ve mentioned that before.
What was I thinking? I can imagine you asking. Oh, it’s simple I guess. I felt a hot want for Isabella. I don’t mean bodily. I mean, I don’t mean just bodily. I felt a hot want for her in all my parts, like the hot wants of drunkenness. I wanted her back as a wall on my life. A tall border where all our pieces merged and all my wantings ceased.
The taxi dropped me off at Stewart Street. Night had dripped in for certain at the fringe of the sky. And it was denser in the air. Moister. Waiting for rain. The street wriggled with young trees along its sides, limber in the wind.
It was a narrow way. All the terraces looked the same. I knocked on number nine. A woman opened the door, wiggling her black jets of hair. She was swathed in black. High curls piled on her head. Her face was tall, but not narrow. It had strong make-up wrapped over its pores. If it wasn’t for the fact that the colour was a deep, woody brown I would have said it was a classic Goth look: her lips were painted blood-red; so were her eyelashes now that I saw it. My God! Could that hair have once been brown under its dye? Could she really be taller than me now?
Was this Isabella?
“Do you want to help me make the beast with two backs?”
“Yes.” I said, blushing and excited.
“Good.” she said. “Come in, then.”
Inside it was dim, but not dark. The lights alternated under their shades from muddy white, to red, to green. The wide hall, with the low ceilings seem to suggest more terrace than you would normally squeeze into a house of its size.
She seemed very skinny. But I couldn’t really make out an outline at all. Her silhouette was sunk into the cushion of the voluminous black coat or cloak she had on. It looked like a black burnoose. Or a magnificent kaftan.
We weren’t going upstairs. We were headed out the back.
“Do you want to change clothes?” she asked me.
I wondered for a moment if she thought I’d just stepped off the plane. But I hadn’t.
“No.” I said. “Unless you want me to.”
She turned and looked me up and down.
“It’ll hardly be my problem, will it?” She turned back. She led me down the hall, through a dim kitchen and into the garden.
It was moonlit. But the moon lit through clouds. Its light sieved through a black veil and became black itself. There was the sound of dogs barking, and growling and padding.
“What..?” I said. “Do you want to do it out here?”
“No.” she said. “I only keep the animals out here. We’ll do it upstairs, in the laboratory.”
I was sure now that this wasn’t my Isabella. But the invisible sway of her hips, that I was nonetheless convinced was there, kept my blood on the boil.
There were cages in the garden. The garden was darker than the house. Barely painted by the moonlight. And on the bricks by one of the thorny, tattered trees I could see low steel cages. Impatient. Rattling. And coming up to my waist.
“Hold the cage still.” she said.
I put my hands out to hold it-
“No!” she said. “Your hands go on the outside if you want to keep them.”
I did. Something barked and growled inside. I saw a shadow hunched over. With short teeth. And the shape of a man.
The woman came back from the other side of the garden. She showed a claw hammer. And without saying anything brought it roughly into the side of the thing’s head, like a bowl cracked on the side of an egg.
Three times, ’til it was dead.
It seemed to cry afterwards. As if it had been holding the sound in, and the noise was loose now. It was only when we lifted the lid of the cage that I realised it had never been locked.
She seemed aroused, now.
“Help me take it in.” she said, and she was right. Hauling that beast upstairs did turn me on.
Her laboratory turned out to be empty. It was a big, hexagonal room. Wooden boards ran parallel to each wall, tapering in on the floor as triangles to make six joints and a point in the centre. They were once polished, but were now just smooth. The walls had green skirting boards, cream walls that had been cleaned far too many times – I hoped only of blood – and no picture rail. We dragged the dog to the centre of the room.
It was a dog. It was hairy, with arms the size of a man’s and too-large legs. Its blue-black fur was shaggy and now clotted. More with dirt than with anything else. But it was the size of a man, and much as I’d feared otherwise it was definitely a dog.
She’d wrapped its head in a plastic bag, but we still left a trail of blood out the door, down the hall and up two flights of steps. That I now realised had no carpet for a reason. The boards must have been warped with all the other bloods that the house had absorbed.
I held the dog while she pulled the bag off its head. The head was surprisingly firm for such a scotched-up mess as I expected. I stared at it, exhausted and panting. Hot with sweat, and bloody on my arms.
“It’s time to make the beast.” she said.
“Here?” I said.
“Yes, here.” she said.
“There’s no bed.”
“Why would there be?” she asked. And it seemed like the most reasonable question in the world.
“We’re doing it right here? On the ground? With that thing there?”
“With two of them.” she said.
“At least two.”
I paused, thought about it and let my own blood stew.
“Alright.” I said.
“Bring in the other one.” She pointed at one of room’s doors. There were three. “It’s already dead.”
I dragged another dog’s corpse in from a narrow space in which it was closeted. That small room had such a low ceiling – like the rest of the terrace – it made me notice how tall the roof of the hexagonal room was. When I came back in, the woman was gone and I was alone with the two dead dogs.
The second dog was like the first. It was a little less tall and had crimson fur instead of black. But its long arms and its thick legs were the same. And its skull was cracked too. This time on the other side. I laid it next to the other one, in the opposite direction. Their limp tongues touched.
The woman opened the other door. Scents of incense and disinfectant washed in after her. In her hand was a leather bag, so practical that it bordered on a box. She put it down by the skirting board.
“I’m ready.” I said.
“I can see. Turn the red one around, so they face the same way. And roll it onto its stomach like the other.”
I did. Lying together, touched at the hip, they looked liked pair of dead twins. Butchered. But at rest. I wondered if one of us was meant to lie on them. If not both.
I looked at the woman. She was looking at the dogs. When I gave her my eye, she regarded me with some serious attention.
“It’s time to make the beast.” she decided.
Rain had started up outside, and I noticed it spattering on the roof right then. The rain was building to a storm. A breeze had snuck into the room, under a door. I smelled summer rain and ether. The coat around her was flicking in the wild wind. Its wind was wilder than anything. I could feel it pressing against me.
“Are you ready?” she said.
“Yes.” I said.
The wind dropped.
“I’ve just never done it in any place like this.” I said.
“You haven’t? Where do you make your beast?”
“My beast.. ?”
“We’re making a creature..?” I said.
“What did you think we were doing?”
“I.. ” I said.
“We’re making the Beast with Two Backs. The great animal of the Magyars. The thing that so often gets mixed up with the Hound of Obuda.”
She squinted at me.
“We need to start now. Pull their rumps apart and hold onto the red one.” she said.
I was hot still. But I realised I was just as hot for the idea of making a beast as I was for anything else. The thrill of creation had started to pulse in me.
I grabbed the red dog and pulled them apart. The woman squatted between them, almost sitting on my dog’s belly. She took a wicked thin butcher’s knife and carefully sliced open the black dog’s skin and fur. She made two cuts. One from the waist to the rump, and one down from the rump to the groin. Then she pulled at the skin from the rump, cutting at thefibre underneath it with the knife. This left a triangular swatch of skin, fur and clots hanging off the animal. With the skin flopped out of the way, she went in and cut at the muscle. The blood clung to it and seemed to form it: cherry-red and moist. The knife stuck between clumps of muscle and twisted them off. Each clod she threw away into a pile by the heads. She cut on until the wound reached to the bone at its hip. She put lymph, tendon and membrane aside. Taking only the knife, she left the black dog alone and had me hold it out of the way. Then she went to work cutting exactly the same parts out of the red one. Only on the opposite hip, so each wound leered at the other dog. And, being a male dog, she bored out the red dog’s genitals too and threw them into the heap with the rest.
When that was cut too, she had me step aside and watch. She dried her hands on a bloody, red handkerchief and opened the leather bag. She took out a thick needle, a thimble and such blue twine as doctors use to lace up a stitch. I helped her drag the red dog closer to the black one. Then she set to work sewing them together.
First she knit muscle to muscle. She sewed not just the flesh, but the sinew and the vessels. Cross-time to the stitches she poured and rubbed in a white salve that she kept in a tiny perfume bottle by her knee. Soon the flesh was tight between them. The spines she splinted together with two small bolts and knotted with twine. And I saw that she’d stitched the genitals of the black dog, being female, neatly in the crotch between the two bodies. The hind legs on the inside crossed over in front of it. I heard a roll of thunder outside.
Next she took a pair of seamstress’ scissors from the bag. Cutting with these, and sewing at the fringes, she used each flap of skin and fur from the beginning to cover imperfections of the conjunction and mismatches of the legs. Blue scars crossed at their groin, wrapped up the haunches and zagged at their waists. But despite the winding of the stitches, the two animals were one now. Joined at the hip. I thought of a flag somewhere, where two eagles shared the one waist. Finally she sewed up the broken holes in their skulls. Each cleft faced away from the other, on the outside of the new beast. She sewed these roughly together. The skin on them was too tight, and stretched the fur across the holes in horrible, shallow furrows. The beast was finished.
“Now we need the lightning.” she said.
“Lightning?” I said.
“Of course, lightning.”
She walked out. From the storeroom she dragged two long extension cords. I think they were plugged into the wall in the other room. There were rusty wires poked out of the end of each one. She poked one into the black dog’s mouth. The other in the mouth of the red. Then she looked at her silver watch.
“Is the lightning.. ” I said. “Is the lightning to inject the creature with some spark of life?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” she said. “Lightning goes from the ground up into to the sky. It doesn’tgive life. The lightning is to suck out its death.”
I looked again at the beast and saw that the two cords met near the door. There was no grounding: the wires lead straight into the sky. She checked her watch again.
“Come with me into the hall.” she said. “It’s due.”
We waited outside. But not long. There was a.. something. A flash that sucked away the hall’s illumination, rather than lit it. And almost simultaneous with it a bracket of deafening thunder.
“It’s done.” she said.
The thunder slowed and stopped.
I could barely see through the doorway. The hall lights were working, though dim. But the light in the beast’s room had vanished with the thunderstroke. I strained my eyes at the black armpit of darkness.
Then I suddenly made out a shape in the middle of the room. It was heaving up and down, with the angry breath of a newborn baby. Its heads swayed with the motion. Its tongues licked at the air. And at us. The legs were the hairy thin legs of a spider. I saw its spit roll along its tongues, pool at the canines and drip onto the floor.
I glanced at the woman. She looked only at the beast. Walking with a slow, firm step she turned on the light. Suddenly the beast became immeasurably worse.
I’d imagined in the darkness that the animal was only wide, heavy and strong. But in the light, I could see that the thing was skinny. Skinny and lithe. But monstrous in its musculature. Some of them weren’t slipping over each other properly. Even so, a strength played over them that I paled to imagine. I began to feel as if its power had pulled the will from my knees.
Its coats were rich and had a kind of healthy sheen. The two colours ran red, black and lustrous to meet at the spines and near the waist. There they were soldered together by jigs of the awkward blue stitch. They made a border: on one side Emperial red, and on the other a state of savage untamed black rump. It was the Beast with Two Backs. The most terrible creature in the world. And we’d made it ourselves.
The woman ignored me. She walked into the hexagonal room. She stood directly in front, framed by the thing’s two long necks and its low red-black carriage. Both heads stared at her, their eyes focused and unwavering.
“Sit.” she said.
It did. The heads seemed to split the rump between them. Each strained at the seated end. The front paws skittered on the wood, and the back legs scudded about from the tension. She seemed to look directly at it, though in truth she was looking directly between the heads. The beast lowered its eyes, and cast its gazes down at the floor. Then it wagged its tails.
The woman patted it on the heads. The movement spoke patience. It spoke planning. The beast lit with life. It played and it pranced and it licked at her chin. The heads jostled with each other to be the closest. She took the hammer from her coat, and she killed it immediately.
It seemed like I’d been staring at the beast forever. She’d cracked the skulls in the same two spots that she’d mended at first in making it. This time the wounds were matted too with a blue stitch in their cups. The beast lay panting, scratching, barely making the motion to have death throes. Dying. I watched it die. I felt a release, and welled with pity at the same time.
“Why.. ” I said. “What.. ? What do we do with it now, then?”
“It Christmas.” she said. “We eat it.”
The rain wept and thundered as we cooked it. There were at least four stories in the terrace, if not more. They were all low-ceilinged, save the hexagonal room, and on the same floor as that was an oven almost as large. I could see the vents at its roof escaping into the superstructure. When we locked the beast inside, the door closed and slammed like the door to a vault.
We’d cleaned the beast in the room it was killed. She’d removed most of the viscera with another knife and a hook, though she’d left the kidneys, liver and the fat. We dressed it for cooking. And while it was baking, retired to separate bathrooms to shower.
We drank white wine while we waited. We ate no appetisers, as she assured me that the beast was to big to even entertain the suggestion of dips or potatoes. The beast itself we laid out on a sturdy wooden dining table, without a plate; moving it there with the aid of a trolley and collecting its juices in a tray as it rolled along. The dining room was enormous, but with an immensely low ceiling.
We strode around the edge of the carcass, eschewing plates to cut at it with thin knives and pick out the juiciest pieces with barbeque forks. We’d stuffed the black half’s ribcage with pineapple, the other with apples, and sowed as much of the meat as possible that remained with garlic and rosemary. I suspect that if it hadn’t been raining we’d have baked it with coals in the garden, and covered it with earth.
It was the tenderest food I’ve ever eaten. Recalling it even now makes my jowls water. And as we broke a rib, in mockery of a wishbone, I was filled with a buoyant Christmas spirit that I’d never felt before and never felt the need to feel since.
She called me a taxi when we finished, and politely refused to let me help with the washing up. She kept the leftovers. Around midnight, when I’d exhausted my conversation with the driver, I looked at the scrap of paper with the address. Under a passing streetlight I saw it read Stewart Lane and not Street after all.
I never did see Isabella again. I found work on A Dragon in the Suez the next day, which meant I was gone by the weekend. And the more I think about it now, the more I doubt that Isabella would have been pleased to see me.
I hope she’s happy. I think I am.