In Professor Hutchison’s Gaiety Museum, closed now for the night, Miss Frankie St. Claire is singing a sea shanty as she juggles her bone-handled bowie knives. Everything about her is light and quick — the half-smile that flickers across her face like the lamplight across the dark panelled walls; the thin fingers with their delicate striations of scars — while, in front of her, Brunhilde, the German Giantess, sits on a sturdy bench meant for three.

     The first time Brunhilde saw Frankie juggling, she held her breath, worried she might disrupt the trajectory of those blades. One gust, one awed exhalation from a giantess, and the knives could go flying, spinning out of their orbit like wayward stars. You had to be perfect for that kind of act, in tune to every little stir of air, with no room in your head for anything but balance, but grace. This was so unlike Brunhilde’s own claim to fame, the wild growth of her body, that a longing flashed up in her: to be held in the little juggler’s thoughts as she performed; just a small corner of that unspoiled space would do.

     Frankie told her once what sent her running: the butcher came calling, a man so large he terrified her. But it was not just that, she told Brunhilde quickly, blushing — and Brunhilde loved her for that sudden colouring, the way she corrected herself: No, now that she thought about it, the size would have been fine; it was the blood she ran from. He always smelled of it, even when he scrubbed himself raw.

     “Funny,” Brunhilde said, “you would have made a perfect butcher’s wife — look how good you are with knives. You could butcher a pig in the air if I tossed it to you.”

     Frankie snorted. They both knew she was too taken with the spotlight to live in any man’s shadow. Brunhilde, on the other hand, fancied a life off the stage, in a big house — not because she had airs, but because she longed to stand straight, sleep sprawled, and welcome the day with an enormous stretch that did not scrape her knuckles on the ceiling.

     To her big house she would admit only those rare people who could see beyond the hulking presence of her size, as Frankie had after that initial sailor’s curse at the sight of her, the whole eight feet of her, the twenty-five stone. But Frankie had quickly recovered herself, had challenged her, foolishly, to a drinking match. How they had laughed — just two girls sharing a barrel of beer. That was when Frankie told her about her flight from home, how, unlike her father, she was beckoned not by the sea but by the railway lines that she had followed until they grew denser, criss-crossing each other more and more until they brought her to the very centre of their gleaming web: to New York City, to this dime museum on the Bowery. And Brunhilde had nodded, noting the lopsidedness of Frankie’s smile, thinking how wrong — what they say about the symmetry of beauty — because this girl is as beautiful as they come. Later, she carried Frankie into the street where men brawled and cats wailed; so light she was, a beer-soaked doll in her arms.

     Now, she watches her friend practise in the lecture hall, where, only a few hours ago, spectators gawked at the freaks ranged like bottles along the raised platform edging the room as Professor Hutchison, the Most Eloquent Orator in the World, exaggerated shamelessly in florid sentences that left him flushed and misted with spittle.

     Frankie lets the knives fall one by one to plunge into the wooden floor, where they stay stuck, quivering.

     “Have you thought of getting your portrait done?” she asks. “There’s the photographer by the Third Avenue El.”

     Brunhilde has heard of this tall, elegant man who, for a price, will take your photograph to sell after the show, as though you were a star.

     “The girls say he’s handsome.”

     Frankie smiles to herself, and Brunhilde feels her stomach compress. Someday Frankie will marry, step into the normal world with its respectable rhythms, its homes with curtained windows that share only a warm, teasing glow, and she will be what she was before: a giantess prowling the darkness, with a loneliness proportionate to her size.

     “Have you been?” Brunhilde asks, and Frankie pulls a card from the waistband of her skirt.

     Brunhilde takes the card and blinks — it is the brightness in Frankie’s eager face, the shine of her dark eyes, the crooked smile that seems barely able to contain a wild energy, like the seam on the professor’s coin pouch after a busy day. Frankie has never looked at Brunhilde like that, as though she will split. Her blouse is pulled away from her collarbones, which look so fragile, Brunhilde thinks: little wishbones.

     With a faint twang, Frankie pulls her knives from the floor. “I’m going to get a second. They sell so well after the show.”

     “I’ll come with you.”

     Frankie straightens, cheeks flushed. “I don’t need a chaperone. You always — never mind.” She spins on a sharp little heel. But she stops at the door, offering, “You could help me pick what to wear, if you’d like,” because it is not in Frankie to stay haughty for long.

     Upstairs, Brunhilde settles herself on the bed, head on the rose-scented pillow, knees slung over the foot of the metal frame, as Frankie rifles through cloth. Pale chiffon dresses and bright tasselled scarves fly around her. A string of beads clatters to the floor. She pulls off her clothing and Brunhilde sees, not for the first time, those two perfect breasts, the gentle weight of them. Her own are colossal; they could break a man’s jaw if she swung them at him. There is so much she could do that she doesn’t do.

     Finally, Frankie settles on something: a thin blouse, a tasselled skirt, a string of pearls.

     “I’ll go tomorrow, after the show,” Frankie says to her reflection in the clouded mirror. “What do you think of this?”

     “I can almost see through that shirt.”

     Frankie laughs, pulls it tighter in search of the dark whirl of a nipple. “Almost.”

     “I worry,” admits Brunhilde. “How many times have you been?”

     “My big-hearted friend,” Frankie says, turning to her at last. “My gentle giantess. I will be fine.” She kisses her cheek then; so soft it is, the brush of a restless wing.

 

The next day, Brunhilde lies on her platform, feigning sleep in a circle of flame, as Professor Hutchison makes his loquacious circuit of the room. He presents the Elastic-Skinned Man, who seizes the skin on his chest with both hands and draws it upward to veil his face. He regales the crowd with tales of his beloved Zulus, who leap in the air and throw their assegais into the very centre of a six-inch circle. He is coming closer to her. Just Captain Costentenus, tattooed from head to toe, which Professor Hutchison confides is the result of a torturous stay with the Chinese, and he is beside her, booming, “Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you Brunhilde, our German Giantess! The woman who looks down upon the world!”

     Against a wave of gasps and whispers, Brunhilde rises, scraping the ceiling with her Valkyrie wings. Usually, Frankie would be leaning against the wall in a pool of light, winking at her to help her stand, but tonight she is gone, her space occupied by a man whose mouth hangs open like a guppy.

 

Brunhilde sleeps in the basement of the dime museum, where she will not strain the floors. She doesn’t mind. In her basement, the ground supports her; it goes down forever. Out her window, she can see the wheels of carriages and grip cars rolling by, watch the feet that, as night wears on, develop an aimless, unsteady shuffling.

     She is waiting for Frankie’s shoes, the heels clipping so quickly across the street they announce her arrival with a joyous little drum roll. They will stop outside Brunhilde’s window and do a jig because Frankie knows her giantess will be waiting for her, worried because of all the girls — the prostitutes, shopgirls, stenographers, factory workers — who were drawn, as Frankie was drawn, to the centre of this web of railway lines, where, in a great sigh of steam, they are released: entirely alone. How easily they disappear into dark corners, into alleyways and dingy apartments. How easily anyone disappears in this city; daily, people are incinerated in tenement or factory fires, or crushed under the wheels of trains, under the hooves of bolting horses, under the steely mass of a streetcar tumbling, screeching, off a drawbridge. In every one of these situations, Brunhilde imagines Frankie: in that last moment before she is destroyed.

     How wonderful it must be, Frankie said once, not to fear anything. But it is Frankie who is the fierce one. And Brunhilde, happiness bound with this tiny reckless woman, is pitched, nightly, on a roiling sea of dread.

     But here are Frankie’s little ivory shoes. Only she is walking so listlessly Brunhilde might not have recognized her but for those shoes and the tassels on her skirt — and even those are drooping and dull as though immeasurably sad. Frankie does not dance in front of her window; she shuffles slowly by.

     Brunhilde leaps up and charges up the stairs. Let her wake up the whole building. Let them think she is an earthquake, a train derailing, a shieldmaiden come to stab them through.

     “Frankie!” she bellows, and bursts into the front hallway.

     One foot on the stairwell leading up to her room, Frankie turns to look at Brunhilde with a tired and devastated expression that does not fit her, like another face has been overlaid on hers, smudging the features into something not at all right.

 

The next morning, Brunhilde strides down the Bowery, through air that swirls with the scents of soured beer, burning coal, vegetable rot, the sea brine wave from the oyster house. Laughter spills from beer halls, mixing with the buzz of the tattooist’s needle, the rattle of elevated trains, shots from the shooting gallery, cries of dime museum talkers. She steps over a drunk who lies like a corpse, a blown handbill stuck to his side like a dirty bandage.

     Soon, she enters the grimy, latticed twilight under the raised tracks of the Third Avenue El. There, she stops and looks up at a three-storey building. A train thunders over her, black dust sifting down.

     As she climbs the stairs, rage and love roll with each other in her heart, the way she used to wrestle her brother until she broke his arm, and as he wailed, she sat back on her heels, blinking, shocked at the damage that could be done.

     “I would like you to photograph me,” she says to the man who opens the door. He looks her up and down and smiles.

     If she were another woman, one with a place in the world other than a spread of wash-worn blankets in the basement of a Bowery dime museum, how improper it would be to visit such a handsome man, alone, in the intimate space of his studio, with its exotic backdrops and flimsy changing screen, the solid cube of his all-seeing camera, plates ready to be exposed.

     “Lock the door,” she says, and he does. “Draw the curtains.”

     “The light —”

     “I’m shy. Close them.”

     He frowns, but mumbles that he supposes they could light the lamp, and turns to the window. She watches his slender back, the folds of his well-cut suit, the graceful lift of a heel as he leans across a potted palm to draw the curtains. How many times has he done that? Shut out the world — as though it would care what he did to a runaway woman who wore transparent blouses and chose to juggle knives instead of marry a butcher, who sang raunchy sea songs out of tune.

 

Frankie is waiting for her, hunched on the basement stairs. She jumps to her feet when Brunhilde enters. “Where have you been?”

     Brunhilde smiles. “You were worried.”

     “The professor was furious. You can’t just miss shows.”

     “I don’t care about the professor,” Brunhilde says, and for the first time, it is true. He is a little man, and she a giantess. She will take Frankie away from here. Together, they will be rocked to sleep on a train rushing them through a pine-scented darkness, under a canopy of stars.

     “Where were you?”

     “I paid that photographer a visit.”

     “Charlie?”

     “That’s the last time he’ll do anything like that.”

     Frankie frowns, blinks. “Like what?”

     “He hurt you.” He has probably hurt others, too; other women, so small and far from home.

     Frankie is staring at her, little pearl drops quivering from her ears, like dew on the tip of a leaf, just about to fall. “He didn’t want me,” Frankie says.

     “What?”

     “I thought he did. For a while he did, but —”

     “He didn’t touch you?”

     Frankie lets out a bitter snort. “Not yesterday, but you should have seen me try.” Then she sighs. “Maybe I wasn’t beautiful enough. There are lots of women …” She shrugs.

     They stand for a moment at the top of the stairwell, not looking at each other, looking, instead, at their shoes that are edged with darkness. Brunhilde puts a hand on the water-stained walls. From below, the smell of coal floats past them, and there is another smell circling them, something sharp that begins to nip at them, something iron that begins to rust.

     “You are beautiful,” Brunhilde says. She has thought this a thousand times, but she says it now in a defensive move, fiercely, as though that will justify it all.

     Frankie squints at her. “Brunhilde?”

     Brunhilde shakes her head, feels the giant expanse of her stomach heave, the floor beneath her tilt and shudder.

     Frankie steps closer, eyes sharp like the points of her knives. “Brunhilde,” she says, and her expression shifts; that dear, fierce face takes on a cast Brunhilde knows too well. It is the look she has spent her life seeing but is not prepared to see on Frankie’s face. “Is that blood? Whose —”

     Frankie steps away from her with a look of horror that makes Brunhilde stagger. It is a look that will weigh on her through the rest of her life, and the blood of the photographer will saturate her, until she is so heavy she can barely move, and she will lie down one day and be unable to rise. They will say that giants never live long; it is the strain of carrying around so much weight. But it is not so much the arms, the thighs, the skull like a boulder. In the end, it will be the weight of this monstrous heart.

filigree

Allegra McKenzie is a writer based in Wakefield, Quebec, in the Gatineau Hills. She placed first in the 2014 Quebec Writing Competition, and her short fiction has been published in Geist, Maisonneuve, and Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec. McKenzie is co-owner of Point, a writing and editing business.
 

“This Monstrous Heart” takes the reader on a surreal adventure into a world that feels at once familiar and strange. In elegant, seemingly effortless prose the author paints an intimate portrait of a friendship and the human heart. Like its protagonist, this story is a giant – but packaged in a tiny frame. It deftly balances humour, tragedy, introspection, and suspense. — Jury Citation (2016 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers)

 


  
 
 

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