Fiction / June 2013 (Issue 21)


The Glass Cadaver

by Shirley Shao

The little girl was standing in elevator #4 when the woman left the hotel; the girl was there in elevator #4 again when the woman returned to change into more casual clothes for dinner. What a coincidence, the woman thought, smiling indulgently at the slight child. The girl shrugged and the woman faltered. Later, the woman left the building in elevator #3, and when she returned late at night to elevator #4—the little girl was still there.

A shaky old man, rather plump and hunchbacked, shuffled in on floor #9. The woman vowed to never again eat anything that street vendors sold, ever. She had heard the girl say to the man, voice high-pitched and accusing: "You killed me, you killed me..."

You did not operate the elevator properly, Mr Elevator-man.

***

In another world, millions of feet above the earth, Vega and Altair miss each other. Why should a river of stars keep the two apart? The two are lovers, geniuses in their own rights who should have more than just a single day to be reunited. Must they walk relentlessly across a black expanse for an entire year before they can meet again?

Well, she's a celestial goddess, her parentage rendering her immortal. One year, he thinks of that and starts to unfurl a strand of that divine inheritance (silver-gold, utterly beautiful) and steady it with a rigid strand from his own body, frozen in time by that ageless black expanse. The link he makes is his own silk thread missile after a sparrow spearheads it towards her. She will condense the threads that he twisted together into something that will bind without imposing, so that even a river of stars can't drive a wedge between them. Even a river of stars can be dammed.

They had two children once, but it will not be a family reunion. Their son left long ago and works as a busy bureaucrat looking over civil disputes between the various deities. Their daughter lives in a palace, enveloped and hidden by a foreboding mountain. Neither will return to a bleary life in the chill sky.

***

Time passed for the two lovers only when they met, and countless parents point at them as a bedtime story. The girl in the little elevator has not seen the sky since the elevator crashed down in flames. She seemed to be about seven, maybe eight years old, her dark brown hair held with a simple blue headband. So accusingly she said, "You killed me, you didn't operate the elevator properly and I died."

"Don't worry," said the old man, staring intently down the long elevator shaft, with only the glass from his laboratory glinting in the darkness. Dreamily, he told her, "You will grow, you will grow...you'll be dead, but you'll grow...and you'll have a family; you can still live," he promised. He went to work, glasses perched on his nose, his liquid glass glowing orange as it was poured and melded around the girl's ashes; pale mint green liquid and chains of unravelled diamond wound around the peculiar misshapen sticks of melted glass. "You'll grow, you'll grow, you'll be dead, but you'll grow."

She couldn't leave that elevator, and she could only wander the dark pit at the bottom of the shaft—but she grew.

***

In so many of the old legends and epics, there are demons who desire flesh—fox demons who believe they can keep their youth with slivers of human heart, snake demons who think the livers of young children will give them immortality. The Lady wonders why they all try to appease the greed of their gourmet palates with this violent but established solution. This is why humans treat us so terribly, thinks the Lady, but at least it doesn't really work against her. She incurs so much revenue growing organs, hearts and livers and other tissues.

Her guests are always so impressed when she places before them a pulsating heart, cradled in crystal saucers with sparkling facets. She doesn't have to do much to prepare for such banquets, since the organs are bred from infant cells in the little crystal containers to begin with. (But her picky, picky guests, they think she's been so careful, so meticulous in the preparation.) They'll trade her coils of gold and silver wire, chains of fine unravelled diamond and flasks of exotic plant roots by the dozen for another dish; maybe they're so pleased they readily agree to all of her propositions.

At any rate, the Lady makes a great profit.

The bureaucrats feel that your practices have become an ethical issue, her mother writes her. It's become increasingly difficult for your brother to plead your case.

I can take care of myself, the Lady writes back, and experiments with making new vessels out of glass. But even though the glass she grinds is first-rate, it never works as well as crystal. She melts all of her cast-offs into misshapen lumps and sells them on the market for a prime price.

***

Once the little girl met a little boy with whom she thought she had fallen in love, though she didn't think it looked like the peculiar liquid glass the old man kept channelling through the sculpture holding her ashes. He was the first boy she'd seen since the elevator-man revived her, and she helped him back onto floor #9 when he got lost coming back from the swimming pool. But he was only ten and did not fall in love with her, even if her eyes and skin were unnaturally clear and each strand of her hair sparkled in the green glow of the elevator-man's fires.

She looked at that vessel containing her ashes while the elevator-man was pumping melted glass through it, and the veins of gold-orange made her think of—leaves? She thought she was beautiful and those veins were the only thing that glowed warmly in the dark shaft.

The molten glass flushed through the body, eventually trickling out of a flattened glass torus at the top of the glass head.

***

He is a carp who wants to become human, which is possible—they just have to remove what allows him to take on the shape of a carp. And, of course, this must happen while he is still a carp; they pluck off his scales, one by one. There's only one person who's willing to perform that procedure for him. (It's kind of illegal. It's traditional for one to meditate for a millennium before shifting forms). She's never done the procedure before, but she'd love to try. She's the most qualified to, anyway, what with her mountain palace devoted to bizarre experimentation.

It's dreadfully painful for the carp as the unsympathetic surgeon tears chunks out from the core of his body—it'd be weird that she can extract DNA like that, if it wasn't even weirder that he's a carp who has managed to acquire human sequences. But this is much safer than having beams lambasting his body, eradicating his carp traits and damaging his mind at the same time. (That's what the next choice was.) After the last scale is gone and he's sopping off what looks like glassy egg whites from his skin with a pancake (he plans to fry it for breakfast), he feels like jelly inside. But this'll pass; being human is great.

***

They closed elevator #4 at some point. Visitors always complained that elevator #4 was creepy. The lights went out and flickered a dim orange until the visitors were frightened into screaming, trapped in that elevator, stuck in that dark shaft until the lights came back as the doors slid open. Besides, elevator #4 was no longer useful. That side of the hotel was demolished, an architect hired to design a new floor plan. The man vaguely remembered a summer from decades before, when he had lost himself in the rippling clarity of a strangely quiet pool. When he surfaced, he was alone. For half an hour he had sat there, fascinated, as he watched shafts of sunlight thread the water, dreaming until a little girl danced to him and sent him back to his family.

The architect had the demolished side reconstructed into a single forty-foot-tall ballroom made of glass, open to the sunrise. Elevator #4 became a decorative turret. The girl didn't know; she just wondered if not being able to see a person was just a part of growing up. The grown-ups had rarely seen her when she was travelling to the top of the shaft for a breath of air, even if she leered right next to them. The little girl did that less and less often, anyway. She was embarrassed that she always smelled of mould. They had stopped repairing the roof over the decorative turret, so rain fell in through the holes and bred green slime.

***

The bureaucrats put the Lady on probation and to humour them, she makes soap instead. She cuts off rough-edged slabs for her visitors and wraps them in waxy white tissue, wordlessly slipping the package into their pockets or shoes. She starts out simple, with foggy chunks that foam away the bruises on purple knees, then clouded nuggets to wiggle the age out of wrinkled skin. She's stopped selling actual glass, but these lumps of soap are still beautiful, and she makes more money than ever before when she comes out with a gem that rinses the lies out of crinkled letters. It was so clear and sparkled so brilliantly when the light hit it that some of her customers thought it was glass, and bought it as such.

***

"When will I have a family?" the little girl pestered the elevator-man. She pleaded and wailed, but the old elevator-man only nodded absentmindedly. He wasn't thinking of her; he was dreaming of glass skeletons with dark shadows for brains and frothing black ink for guts. Eventually the elevator man forgot to come back to that dark shaft, and nobody pumped liquid glass through the vessel holding the girl's ashes.

It was always too dark now. Sometimes, somewhere in the darkness, the little girl heard laughter, the tinkling of silver. Glass slippers tapped against a glass floor, and the girl's head tingled and she thought she could see lace flounces—but then the feeling would pass, and she was alone again in that black elevator. Years passed. Holes in the roof let in more rain, and, though the girl couldn't see the green mould, she could feel it, and it disgusted her.

"Elevator-man, are you there?" the girl cried out crossly once a week, more out of habit than anything else. She made a routine out of it. Sunday night, at exactly midnight, Elevator-man, are you there?

11.58 pm—"Elevator-man, are you there?" asked a different voice.

***

Nobody answers the Lady's call as she walks in the abandoned elevator shaft. A glass vial holds a soap solution, and it churns out silver bubbles to light the lady's path as she looks around the place. The bureaucrats want a favour of her—that elevator-man has raised even more ethical issues than she has, and he doesn't have Vega or Altair to protect him. He still owes the Lady for his last purchase of glass blocks. If the Lady uses that pretence to corner him and turn him over to the bureaucrats, she's off probation.

The elevator-man has long ago abandoned this post. The Lady is about to leave when the silver bubbles float over the remains of the old man's studio.

There's a glass body in a glass coffin, and the lady peers at it. Little silver specks of ash embedded within the body reflect the light from her bubbles. The preserved form is really less glass than air, its insides crisscrossed with thousands of little channels that become the veins and arteries through which molten glass would run. The head seems to have fewer capillaries than the rest of the body, but a knot of the white ashes has clumped there. The Lady looks closer to find that the vessels there have been clogged, and she lightly taps the glass. That's her soap, her brilliantly clear soap stuck in the glass brain.

She decides to wait another day before hunting the elevator-man. There are some things she can do, even on probation.

There are a few more blocks of the soap next to the coffin, cracked because someone stomped on them. No matter. The Lady takes them and fiddles with the glass body for a little while longer before she continues what the elevator-man had unintentionally started. The soap froths through the body, gurgling and catching the rest of the ashes in a fine lather before heading towards the head. When she runs out of the broken soap pieces, she adds an infusion of the soap she brought with her. Plip plip plip. Bubbles spew from the glass brain and shoot through the empty shaft. The bubbles glow, goldenrod-orange, floating, floating, the ashes caught in the viscous fluid.

***

The girl felt herself disseminating into ashes as the strange lady prodded at the abandoned container the elevator-man had made—and then the glass vessel became smaller and smaller, until the girl could no longer see it. The sounds of the glass slippers against a glass floor became softer and softer, until they had faded away. With a quivering shudder, the night wind slid underneath her, and the musty wet odours around her became fainter and fainter, until they were swept away completely.

Before the bubbles fell apart and set her ashes free, the girl could look up and see Vega and Altair.

("The Glass Cadaver" is the opening of a novella-in-development, built around the reinterpretation of Sinosphere mythology and archaeological sites.)

 
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