Maria Takolander

 

 

 

Show Business

 

Maria Takolander

 

The streets were rotten with sewage and offal. Butchers skinned and gutted beasts outside their shops. They passed off jawbones for cutlets; a man found teeth in his steak. Bread was scarce, and dried dog shit ground for pepper. Outside the perfumery men on boxes barked of The Virile Boy and The Incombustible Spaniard.

Curtius’ waxworks in those days had a Giant Negro for a doorman. Madame was the housemaid’s daughter, a small and forgettable girl. She helped the master, whom she was permitted (delicately) to call Uncle, build a model of the impossible Salon of the Grand Couvert of Louis XVI.

As they positioned eyeballs, sewed hair into skulls—the young Madame had nimble fingers—dressed the horsehair torsos and timber limbs, and laid the table with papier-mâché poached eggs and chickens, Uncle talked. Some days, he said, the Queen’s bouffant, studded with butterflies and cupids, would fit only beneath the heavens.

Fashions changed. Soon women in the streets wore short hair and guillotine earrings. Children paraded bearing cats’ heads on stakes. Curtius, a businessman, came to arrangements: with Sanson, the executioner, for buttons; and with the trench-digger at the Madeleine cemetery. He took Madame there under firelight before the quick-liming.

They made moulds in the torch’s half-night, sealing nostrils, coating eyes and swollen tongues, patting over the puckered rims of necks, with plaster that had always been—Madame saw it now—the colour of death. The tacky blood on Madame’s apron, as her mother said, would never wash off.

Years later, Madame found herself married to a gambler. Napoleon would also soon prove bad for business. Working alone, she cast the face of her firstborn: a daughter, six months old. She watched as the corpse and the plaster hardened. She buried the child in a wooden box and kept the doll’s mask. The show went on.

 

 

 

 

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