Night pooled on the bed in a tangle of starlight and shadow and Lasha cried out, "Is he coming? Jim, is he--"
"Who? Is who coming?"
"Is he --"
I fumbled for my glasses. My good ones, the horn rims, were gone from the nightstand. I pulled the wire-rims with the cracked left lens from the drawer.
"I can't get out!"
"Hush --" I worried away at the sheets until Lasha slid free. She trembled, damp in the heat, lingering in some other world, and I gathered her into my arms as if she were a child and vulnerable. As if I were the strong one. "Shh. Tell me."
She folded her angles into me in unfamiliar softness. "There was -- a jacket. Made of every fabric -- cotton and taffeta and acetate and burlap -- hand-sewn with the tiniest stitches. White, all white." She huddled in my arms. "It was too tight. It -- it frightened me."
"You came to bed late." I toyed with a strand of her hair, a curl of crimson that tickled and teased my arm. "You were playing at divination. Your dreams are full of fancy." Her image, split by the crack in my left lens, overlapped with her solid image in my right.
"And the sleeves." Her hair tumbled forward as she rested her head on my shoulder. "Crocheted like spider web, all sticky paths looping back on one another. But long, too long."
"It's the reefer," I soothed. "Come. Sleep."
But she would not sleep. "It closed with big, square buttons of horn and ivory. And the lining was pure silk, Jim. Nothing softer." Lasha stretched and crossed her legs around my waist. "And for standing up to ruthless Suits, nothing harder. Bulletproof at close range."
"It's the wine and the tarot, Lasha. Come. I'll hold you. Sleep." Dusk and night trifled with star shimmer, played across the pillows, a wreath of fog. And in the centre of the black and grey, Lasha lay back on the bed, her red hair cascading like blood over the rumpled duvet, her arms reaching out.
"It was a gift." A tiny wrinkle appeared between her brows and for an instant she became the Lasha I knew, assured and determined. "From you."
"It's the heat."
Starlight fell on her hair and bare shoulder, but shadows clung to her face and neck and breasts. She wore an old muscle shirt from somewhere, not mine, that clung to her bony frame. She peered at me from beneath heavy lids. "You never fuck me."
"But what if I wanted it?"
"That's not what we do."
The frostlight of summer stars stole across her shoulders. "What would you do if I left you?"
"You're free, Lasha. No one can hold down lightning."
She stretched her arms restlessly over the edge of the bed and her agitation crept between us. "I'm still trapped here. Why, I wonder?"
"You love the business."
"The business is out there," she argued. "Hollywood."
"You used to think our work was better than that."
She lowered her lashes, peering at me through them, inscrutable.
I softened my voice with temptation. "We film Ophelia tomorrow."
She shifted, floating on some other sea, focusing on nothing. "You didn't stay for the Ouija."
"Ophelia needs to be buried. I had a grave to dig."
But her spirit had drifted beyond reach, moved on, leaving me trapped in a web of words unsaid.
"The jacket." She whispered, as if to the stars beyond the skylight. "In my dream. It had a small stain."
"Hush." I lay at her side, draped an arm across her stomach. "The tarot's tangled your imagination."
"A blood stain."
A zephyr lifted the gossamer over the window; touched my neck and a shiver scuttled over my skin. "You've been reading Washington Irving." I diverted, distracted, but sleep was banished now from our bed.
"A devil's blemish."
"You're still high, Lasha. Come. Sleep."
"Do you know what his price is?"
"Too high. Go to sleep."
She nestled in to me in the tangle of damp sheets, seeing some dark and distant place within her thoughts. "The collar. The collar I couldn't see. I could feel it, though. Soft. Oh, so soft, like fur. Like long, luxurious fur." She tucked herself into me. "I wanted that jacket, Jim, even though it choked me."
"It was only a dream."
She twisted the covers into a chaste cocoon. "They say . . ." She yawned, a cat; lazy, eyes closed. "You can call the devil with the Ouija."
We made movies in those days. Lasha did everything. She woke at dawn, made lists and organized, calling people, always calling people. We lived upstairs, she and I, intimate as lovers, celibate as eunuchs, in the warehouse where the filming was done, where the fantasies played out. I did nothing but what Lasha told me to do, which was everything. I went for coffee. Answered emails. Painted sets, hung lights, sewed costumes, picked up.
Mostly, I dressed Lasha. I made her clothes. I styled her hair. Lasha had wonderful hair, then, long and kinky and willfully wild. I lived to touch it, to smell it, to adorn it. I was the only one to work with her hair. She didn't want the natural look. No, the red was a dye, a lie, different with every mood. "Put more orange in it," she'd say. "Streaks along the top." Then she'd lay all the way back in the barber's chair and give herself up completely to me. "More burgundy. More red."
Then she would be gone.
Doing things, being with people. Because people were what Lasha was all about. Actors, designers, musicians. Long-haired technicians in ripped jeans with wrenches in their pockets climbing ladders to tighten the nuts on big tin-can lights. Makeup artists smoking Camels in back rooms, swathed in chenille and rehearsal socks. Government arts funders with pale fingers and obscure forms, rigid with ass-tight loopholes. And executive producers who didn't really matter, because Lasha was in charge. She fought for every scrap of film that ever came out under her name. A bullet-proof vest might have helped her to bear the world.
We existed in perpetual deep night, and brilliant day. Lights seared the stage so it became a desert, barren and dry. They broiled the actors, who walked through Sandbox and Godot and No Exit. But in the cool dark, behind the sandbags and dollies, behind the folding chairs and empty beer cans, there was a richness, of furtive movement and silent cues, the smell of greasepaint and spirit gum. Costumes fluttered on racks, cigarettes glowed in ballet hands. Paper cups emoted on overturned oilcan coffee tables, and ropy wires slithered across the floor or hung like vines from impossibly high catwalks.
Lasha's life was a spotlight. Intense. Hot. Forever struggling to spill beyond the black box eclipsing her. But, as her movies leaked into the world, cracks appeared in our warehouse, admitting strangers and fear. We saw how they knocked at the doors, and we huddled inside, in curiosity and despair, she and I.
When the work was done, and it was never done, the play began, which never stopped. The actors came off stage and into the fantasy to smoke and strip out of costume and gossip. The lights dimmed then, and candles appeared, and the bottles and joints, and the Ouija and tarot. Hands, gracefully dancing in smoky glow, gestured, illustrated, slowed. Tongues loosened and names dropped, and grand ambitions flowed. They'd trade their souls for a chance at Hollywood. And it was Lasha who summoned the séance.
Other things happened, too; secretive things, in dark corners. Love-making in broom closets or overstuffed couches or deserted kitchen tables on top of the silverware and grapes, beating the table, moaning, crying.
I watched her.
From the space between the counter and the window, beneath the hanging pots, bypassed by moonlight and candlelight, I watched her jerk to the rhythm of a faceless stunt man. She watched back, eyes on mine, fever bright. Lightning current pulsed in the space between us, sharpening, demanding, insisting, until we quivered and throbbed and burst.
A small director arrived one morning, with a Gordian script, towing an actor with a name. Through my binoculars I saw them, standing in the oversized barn doors, silhouetted, black against brilliant day. The director strutted onto our mock wooden "O" to the gravedigger's pit where I dressed the set, and I let the binoculars fall back on their lanyard. House lights at half power glinted from his sunglasses.
"They say I need Lasha." His words shackled, coerced, colluded. "Or she needs me."
"We're in the middle of Hamlet. We don't need you."
"'Course you do, baby." His smile was a fisherman's, eyeing a fat sturgeon, calculating strategy and the worth of my atheist soul. "Or you will." He passed his hand through the air as if drawing a curtain, and in that instant the world faded to grays and murmurs. Only the small, dark man and I existed, facing one another at opposite ends of conduit, black as Hell. Nauseous memories of my uncle in the night crawled out of my skin.
"Now, where can I find the little producer? I have a piece for her. Candy."
He wanted Lasha?
"Lasha, that's right." He spoke as if we had known each other for years. As if I'd asked the question aloud.
Clammy fingers like past shame slid down my groin.
"You know who I am."
My stomach heaved.
"Now. Lasha summoned me." He produced the Tower of the Major Arcana by way of evidence. "And I have a gift for her. Or, shall we say, a trade."
Lasha summoned him? For god's sake, why?
"Why? Trapped, isn't that what she said? Can't get out?"
"We don't want you. We--" The words blistered my lips.
"We?" His voice flowed around me, soothing, explaining; intimate as unwanted touch. "You can't hold quicksilver, Jim. It's like a film. You create an artifact to play over and over until the pictures fade to nothing. But that moment between the actors? It's gone. You should know that, baby." His grip lessened. "You might see things more clearly if your lens wasn't cracked."
I swallowed, massaged my throat, tried to breathe.
"But I can help you, even to capture mercury. Bring me something of hers." He smiled, soft pink lips peeking from his black goatee. "When you're ready."
The best boy slumped by and noticed the newcomers. "Need a hand?"
"Two. Clever ones." The small man laughed, a pitch too high. His gaze shifted from me and I fell from the nightmare as Lasha had, panting and chilled with sweat. "She wants more, Jim." His whisper rattled in my thoughts.
"Lasha!" The boy hoisted electrical cable over his shoulder and slouched off toward her office.
I stumbled to the shower to scrub myself clean.
When she saw the actor, Lasha's eyes grew large and dark. She wore her wild curls coiled on top of her head, then, and sported fake glasses and a clip board; but she wrapped Hamlet and scheduled the new script for the following week. Funding was in place, so sets were designed and built. Pyrotechnics and mirrors appeared, thespians rehearsed and mimes mimed. Lasha's laugh became softer for the actor, and she tossed her head more. She sprinkled herself near him, a glitter of sunlight on wet fur, and the heat of her smile left me.
"Jim, get Colin a coffee."
"Jim, run to the store for cigarettes."
"Jim, run the bath."
The shower sprayed a glittering mist before a scrim of night, fogging my glasses. The tub, high porcelain sides and rolled top, perched on claw feet. Hairs like fine lines lifted from the surface to bob on the rising water, a film of grit and soap scum.
Lasha glistened like a seal, climbing out, all sheen, lampside, and shadow, my side. She toweled away the film until the tiny hairs stood out from her skin, haloed in light. She spritzed spray and gathered chiffon.
I coiled cable in the bedroom. Tonight she would star for me on the silverware and grapes and I didn't care if it was with the big name actor. Tonight we, Lasha and I, would quiver and throb and burst.
She stepped out of the spot, silhouette against white-lit mist, her eyes picking me out of the dark. "Colin is taking me to Hollywood."
The cables tangled about my feet.
"He has a part for me in 'The American Dream'."
Her words, a hammer. "You're not an actress."
"I could be." She adjusted the sash restraining the springy coils on her head.
"You never wanted to be an actress."
"I could act. I could write, do props. It's a foot in the door. An exit."
"You could never do props. You'd go out of your mind --"
"I'm obscured here, Jim!"
"Obscured?" I wiped the mist from my glasses but beads of moisture wept from them, blurring her.
"Shadowed. Occulted. Overcast."
Hollywood. And what would remain? Sound stage without sound? Camera without lens? Moth without flame?
She slid into the barber's chair, bright-lit by bare bulbs. When Lasha decided a thing, it was done.
"Well, then." Damn her. Damn him.
"I don't. No, I don't." Panic fingered my gut and I dropped the cables.
"Jim. No hysterics." Cool. Cold, even. Changed.
Words blanched from my tongue. I loosed the red silk tie that bound her mane and buried my hands in the masses of kinky hair, soothing my panic, finding release.
I had to keep her.
"You'll get along. You always were the strong one."
"No. No, not me." I tilted the chair back and wound the sash around my hands. I laid the silky red across her throat, a gash. "All that hair has to go."
"Definitely." I tilted my head so her neck appeared broken, refracted in my left lens. My fingers trembled on the sash in a fantasy of indecision. I tugged, and the sash slithered into my hands.
"Eye-catching, then. I have to be noticed."
"Cut. Short." I used the sash to tie her wrists to the arms of the chair. "Smooth on top and spiked at the back." The shears lay before the mirror, glinting, brilliant, honed.
"But still red; red, and orange and burgundy."
Lasha lay back, eyes closed, tendrils falling from forehead to floor. Her throat gleamed, white in the brilliant light, naked to her breasts. "Asymmetrical," she said. "You have to be unique in Hollywood."
I opened the scissors, gripped a blade against its handle and felt the edge bite my palm. Razor pain to relieve anguish. I knelt beside her. Pain. That was what was needed.
Her hair smelled of violets.
The open blade pressed into the flesh of her throat and the soft skin yielded. My eyes stung. "This short?"
"Do it." Her voice was low, seductive. "Here, on the barber chair."
A drop of blood wrung from my hand appeared on her chest. She arched her back, pressing herself into my wrist and the red trickle snaked between her breasts. She turned to look at me, twisting her neck into the blade. Eyes, black, all pupil. Lashes inked with kohl and mascara, lips ruby, a blurring together of Lasha and remembrance of Lasha.
A half-moan slithered from my throat and I had to push myself with a force of will to stand astride her, hard up against her hips. She lay in the chair, bound, unresisting.
And would she stay, if I did? Renege on her contract with the director?
"Do it to me, Jim."
I drew the point of the shears down her chest, tracing the red line.
Her back lifted, nipples erect. "Once. Before Hollywood."
I leaned over her, took the rope of her hair, my creation, and pulled her head hard against the head rest. In one shear, I snipped the strands from their roots. "This short?" I backed from her, arms upraised, trophy in one hand, bloody scissors in the other.
"On the silverware and grapes? Like the stunt man?" The scissors clattered to the floor.
"Why won't you fuck me?"
I clamped her severed mane in a clip. "On the catwalk stairs, like a gaffer?"
I traced a stain of crimson down her torso with my slashed hand. "On the bar from Virginia Woolf, like a patron?"
"And spoil what's special between us?"
She tugged at the sash at her wrists.
I knelt beside the barber chair and the down of her shoulder brushed my cheek. "This is not goodbye." I clipped the letter "A" into the scalp above her ear. "Asymmetrical," I whispered, and left to clean the blood from my hands.
But in the studio below, the sound technician blasted the cast with 'In A Godda Da Vida.' The small director planned his cuts and his cut, the actor with the name read blockbuster scripts, the carpenter hung flats, the stage manager counted headsets, the bookkeeper tallied sums, the actors promised undying fealty, the bit players hugged one another and the best boy lit a joint.
The costume girl looked for Lasha, and finding her, untied the red silk around her wrists.
I hid in the sound booth and beat on the silent glass. Lasha was leaving. I caressed the shank of hair. Lasha was leaving.
In the empty night, Lasha came to where I sat alone on the edge of the unmade bed, her carpetbag in the doorway. She looked at me with pale lamp eyes, bare of kohl and mascara. "I'm going."
"You're stepping under an arc light."
She picked up her shaggy coat woven with wools of llama and goat, with raw fleece and herb-dyed down, and pulled it over one shoulder.
I struggled to cry out, to stop her. As easily try to put the stars out of joint.
She left, and the rooms we'd lived in let out a breath like a spotlight cooling after the spectacle is over and all the playgoers have left the theatre for another life. Moonlight dripped through the cracks in the skylight, fluorescence dying.
For, what was the warehouse without her? What was the soundstage, the paint cans, the dimmers, the front office, without her? What was the moonlight without her?
What was I without her?
I picked up used paper cups.
The shadows followed me.
I dusted the prop shelf.
The candles flickered and went out as I passed.
I stacked brooms in the closet.
The warehouse sighed.
And, so, now in this hour before dawn, when all secrets are kept and revealed, I climbed the ladder to the catwalk, knowing where to go as certainly as I knew the ending of Hamlet. Up, to the rafters, to deliver the mane of hair.
The small director waited. "As I said." My horn rims peeked from his breast pocket.
"You need a hand. I heard."
"Two. Clever ones. Good with scissors."
I held out my arms. He took my hands and turned them over. "One is damaged."
He shrugged. "Very well." He squeezed. "For my collection."
My hands vanished. Shocks seared my forearms, pierced to my shoulders and shot down my back. I fell gasping to my knees.
"The pain won't lessen, but you'll get used to it." He reached into a pool of shadow, produced a box and laid it before me. "I keep my promises, if not my word."
I gathered the smooth, white cardboard, whispering and heavy, into my arms. My gift for Lasha.
"Pity." The voice whispered in the air around me, or in my mind, but the director had vanished along with my hands.
I brought the box, in arms that ended in jagged, wrinkled scars, to the ghost-gray light that fell onto the centre of our bed. I nudged the unruly sheets away and sat at the edge of the halo to slide the lid back.
I poked the white jacket from the tissue and spread it across the bed. Hand stitched. My hands. It glowed in the moonlight, silky threads winding their way across the sheen. I touched the ivory buttons, my buttons, and ran my stump across the lining, downy as a baby's velvet crown. I crushed my face into the collar, soft with the curls of red I had stolen. I breathed in Lasha's scent, after the lovemaking, after the wine, after the cigarettes, when her eyes were black and wet, and she was yielding and mine.
And so. She returned to me.
A step on the floor, the perfume of her breath on my neck, her hand on my shoulder. I felt the bedsprings creak; she pressed her body into mine.
"What did you give him, Lasha? For Hollywood?"
But I knew the answer. "Love." She blinked and turned to me with the expression of one who fought her way up from the depths of a dream. "I gave up you, Jim."
I smiled. Because she hadn't given up love at all. She was back. I turned and gave her the jacket. Drew it around her shoulders and crossed the long sleeves over her waist and fastened them behind her back.
Her eyes were bright and distant, lingering for one wistful, uncomprehending moment on the skylight, then gone again to another plane. I didn't mind. We all had a price to pay. The padded shoulders looked fine on her. She needed them to bear the world.
This story originally appeared in Tesseracts Fourteen: Strange Canadian Stories.