It had been five years since I went into the costume shop. It was only a few blocks away from my mother’s house, but I always hurried my pace when I walked past it. It was in a converted Victorian house; the exterior was painted gold, turquoise and black, like a cartoon version of an Egyptian tomb. In the window, between two sides of a thick purple curtain, a mannequin wearing an eighteenth-century wig with devil’s horns, gold snake-shaped jewellery and a black lacy dress held a sign that said: ‘COSTUMES, VINTAGE AND UNIQUE FINDS’. The shop was surrounded by a fence of dismembered mannequin limbs, painted blue. They were female limbs: slim ideal ones so unlike my own that to see them, even out of the corner of my eye, made me self-conscious. If the weather was nice, there were clothes outside, racks of coats and dresses, colourful bins of scarves and rows of cowboy boots, as if the owners had been forced to take them off before entering, never to return. The uppermost window, belonging to the attic, was covered with a poster of a grinning turn-of-the-century moon.
The shop was both tempting and sickening, like a gingerbread house. It was owned by a horrible couple – two immense Germans with blond hair. They looked like they ate a lot of sausages. Their faces, their hands, seemed larger than most. The man dressed in black oxford shirts, black jeans and black leather vests – he could’ve been mistaken for a pastor, if you squinted and did not notice his black snakeskin boots and the sinister rings that covered his knuckles like gold and silver warts. He resembled, if such a thing existed, a male witch. The woman wore lots of leather and black stockings with complex patterns on them. Her make-up was always blue, beige, red, and around her wide waist was a belt made out of bullets.
I had only been inside once. My younger sister had wanted a mask. At the time I was seventeen and she was fifteen. We never went to costume shops because our mother made most of our costumes: skeletons, moons, witches, ladybirds. But a mask was beyond our mother’s skill – the papier mâché one she had made, using water and flour, hadn’t dried properly and became mildewed. My sister and I both had dark brown hair like our mother. My sister had acne scars, but she was so pretty, it looked like decoration on her face. If anyone needed a mask, it was me. My face looked like that of a very thin elephant: large ears and nose, small eyes. I hated wearing costumes, and I hadn’t done so since I was eight: I believed I was so ugly, I couldn’t disguise myself as anything else. The shop smelled like nag champa, mothballs and face make-up. There were wings, white, red, black, pink, made out of chicken feathers, plastic noses, piles of Russian navy shirts and knitwear from northern countries, gowns, boas, leather jackets, top hats, frills, ribbons, shoes, corsets; such a variety of segments, pieces, slices, scraps, strips, it was hard not to think of a butcher’s shop.
My sister went towards them and grabbed a grey wolf mask made out of wood, holding it against her face and howling.
There were crinolines, like multi-coloured clouds seemingly floating across the ceiling of the shop, but which in fact dangled from hooks. There was no one in the shop when we went in, only a plaster Elvis bust on the counter, a female mannequin with a beehive wig and a male mannequin in a giant golden birdcage wearing a green-feathered outfit.
At the back of the shop was a wall of masks: wooden, rubber, leather, Venetian, Mexican, Indonesian. The rubber masks were the most frightening, because without heads wearing them they seemed misshapen, like flayed skin. I thought I saw the eyes of a mask move, but the floorboards of the shop were so uneven, the wares so overwhelming, it must have been a trick. My sister went towards them and grabbed a grey wolf mask made out of wood, holding it against her face and howling.
I looked at the crinolines. There was one that was grey, like a pouf of smoke escaped from a train in which one could disappear. With my sister’s encouragement I pulled it down and went into a changing room while she went back to look at the masks. I pulled the crinoline over my clothes, but it looked messy – like I was a doll covered in cobwebs pulled out of an attic, so I took off everything I was wearing, even my bra, stockings and underwear. I put the crinoline back on, and looked at myself, unexpectedly entranced in the changing-room mirror. We didn’t have a full-length mirror at home – you had to stand on the toilet to look at yourself in the small round mirror above the sink.
Behind me, there was no longer a curtain, but a glaring, toad-like face and a black, religious-looking hat. I turned around, covering my breasts with my hands. He closed the curtain again.
I hurriedly put my clothes back on and stepped outside, leaving the crinoline in the changing room. He was waiting there, his arms crossed. He pointed to a sign, which read: ‘PLEASE ASK BEFORE USING THE CHANGING ROOMS.’
My sister, watching us, dropped the mask. It broke into three pieces. The woman appeared out of nowhere, screaming at her that the mask cost three hundred dollars and we would have to pay for it. My sister ran past her and grabbed my wrist. We ran out together.
They didn’t follow us out – I don’t know why, perhaps there was a law against chasing children. They must have been watching us on a security camera, said my sister. We laughed and laughed, out of fear.
After that, whenever we broke something around the house my sister would scream in a fake German accent. It had become funny to us, but still – we never went back inside the shop, and avoided walking past it.
When I returned, those five years later, the costume shop looked gloomier than I remembered it: the clothes on the racks appropriate for scarecrows, the colourful paint flaking, the moon poster covering the attic window wrinkled like a grape. There was a sign that read: ‘2 for 1 cashmere’ – that was what drew me in. They surely wouldn’t remember me; I was almost twenty-two.
I had gone away to university, while my sister had stayed at home. She chose the same art college our mother went to, only fifteen minutes away by bicycle. I went to a small university in a small town, with nice old stone buildings and very cold weather – it was on a lake and one felt the cold lake wind even in the library. I studied Scandinavian literature, so the setting suited me. I never had the money to go on an exchange to anywhere in Scandinavia, or even to visit. My specialization was Danish literature, and I could read very well, and write, in Danish. I wasn’t Danish myself, but I had learned about Denmark as a child through blue tins of butter biscuits and Hans Christian Andersen. I was writing a novel in Danish. One of the characters was a beautiful doorknob who moved through various houses and apartments; that’s all I’ll say. I had received a rejection letter from a Danish literary magazine for a short story. They had written back to me in Danish, though I didn’t have a Danish name, which made me proud.
After graduating I had nowhere to go but home. I hadn’t found a job yet, though my sister worked part-time in a shop selling tea and crystals. She painted very small pictures of foxes, bears and other woodland creatures having tea parties among the trees; if you looked closely you could see the contents of the teacups were red, and if you looked even closer you could see a little girl’s shoe or ribbon somewhere in the painting, hiding in the grass or hanging from a branch. Our mother was an artist too: she taught art at a Russian private school. Under her instruction they mostly painted pictures of horses and copied Andrei Rublev icons.
Since I was thirteen I have always worn the same outfit: drab brown skirts and black sweaters from the Salvation Army. I wanted to think about clothes very little, and to be noticed as little as possible. In the shop again, I chose two black jumpers, but didn’t try them on: one seemed very large, the other small, but I didn’t care. To my relief, there was a pale and sour-looking young man with a blue Mohawk behind the counter, instead of the Germans. He wore a pinstripe suit with a waistcoat and a spiky dog collar. He rang my sweaters through without looking at me and put them in a bright yellow-and-red bag, which I stuffed into my purse as soon as I was standing on the steps outside. I didn’t like colours, and I didn’t want my sister to know where I had been.
He was there, the German owner, crouching – he was repainting one of the legs, with a tiny bucket of blue paint. He stood up when he saw me, so suddenly that I jumped, and asked me if I wanted a job. His name was Wolf.
I thought that he wanted me to work to pay for the mask my sister had broken, but he didn’t seem to remember who I was. Instead he told me he paid above minimum wage, that it wasn’t a difficult job, that he really needed help, and it was only him and the young man, Raven, inside. He didn’t ask whether I took an interest in fashion (I didn’t), or knew how to sew or use a till. I said ‘yes’ to the job, as I didn’t have any other options, beside my Danish novel, but I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t seemed as if the German woman had gone. I looked up at the store, at its windows, for her face. There was only the moon, like a death mask.
It was easiest to sell the clothes that were second-hand as people couldn’t ask for different sizes and we didn’t bear much responsibility for the personality of the clothes, or how they were made and looked. They were simply passing through us, as if we were a train or a steamship. Wolf washed them and patched them up, but made no drastic changes. Also easy were the cheap costumes that came in plastic packages: Frankenstein’s monsters, witches, nurses, they couldn’t be returned if opened. The imitation eighteenth-century garments made me nervous; they were soft and difficult contraptions, heavy as bodies themselves. There were drawers full of buttons shaped like moons and Alice in Wonderland characters, and drawers full of ties, cufflinks and garter belts. The counters had glass tops and were filled with rings, brooches and necklaces. Earrings hung from a string above the counter like tiny clothes on a laundry line. Behind it Wolf kept a bottle of castor oil, in case anyone tried on a ring that was too small – the oil helped slide it off.
I brought a notebook with me to the shop and made lists of clothes to use in my Danish novel: braided military coats, plastic Viking hats, neckties, striped stockings, white ruffs, long blue dresses.
There was an old computer underneath the counter that played songs in a continual loop: April Stevens, Patsy Cline, The Beach Boys, ‘The Monster Mash’, The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, Dion and the Belmounts, and other music typical for a costume shop. I longed for Schubert, Schumann and string quartets by Tchaikovsky. I played them on my music player when no one else was there, hooking it up to the speakers. Backstage there was an elaborate array of traps and poison to keep vermin away: moths, rats and mice. The costume shop was located between a Chinese shop selling eggs and tofu and a natural-foods bakery, so there were always rats around. We burned nag champa to cover the smell of mothballs. I hated disposing of used rodent traps. We also sold oversized rat and mouse costumes – ears, long rubber tails.
I hated the fur coats, which hung like giant’s beards, and the saucy people who came in and bought them, men with moustaches and female models, who looked like long, bony fingers or insects. I sometimes dreamt that I put on one of the coats and Isak Dinesen mistook me for a lion and chased me around the shop, trying to shoot me.
I watched Wolf closely. His face reminded me of a bust of Beethoven I had seen at university. He wore the following rings: one of the glass-eyeball rings that were popular sellers in the shop, a silver ring shaped like an eagle, a gold ring with a hunk of amber, another gold one with a tiny circle of ruby and another silver ring shaped like a wolf’s head. He was very tall with a large belly. He wore the same things everyday, like me: his uniform of black trousers, a black vest and a white shirt. The only thing that changed was his hat, but each was made out of black felt, as if it was the same hat, shape-shifting according to his mood: a black bowler, a black tyrolean hat with a black feather on its brim, a capello like a Catholic clergyman. The rare times he wasn’t wearing a hat, you could see his hair, which was white and combed in an old-fashioned manner with oil, which I imagined was popular when he was a boy. On his vest he often wore a gold brooch in the shape of an elephant’s head. There was something creaky about him; I wondered if he had a wooden leg, a glass eyeball, a piece of metal somewhere inside his body holding things together, a fake tooth, an organ that once belonged to someone else.
Behind me, there was no longer a curtain, but a glaring, toad-like face
and a black, religious-looking hat. I turned around, covering my breasts
with my hands.
Raven wasn’t happy when I was given the job. He had been working there since before Eule – that was her name – died, and was made full-time when she became ill. He told me this when Wolf wasn’t there. Raven was older than I had originally thought. He was like an antique porcelain figurine of a child with cracks in it. He talked about Eule with admiration, a lot, about how she threw wild costume parties, had interesting tattoos all over her body. He talked about her so much that I had a dream I found a mask of her face at the back of the shop. It screamed at me with its big red mouth and I threw it against the wall. It broke into pieces, but still screamed, the bits of mouth splitting into their own voices, a choir of screechy German.
Wolf was absent for periods of time, from days to a few weeks, leaving Raven and me to run the shop. He was buying things around the world to sell in the shop, from milliners in Switzerland, jewellery makers in Morocco, mask-makers in southern Germany. That’s why the shop wasn’t like anywhere else; though he wasn’t above buying plastic stuff made in China – we sold that too. Wolf left and returned wearing a great, long overcoat and carrying a shabby-looking olive military backpack. He was followed a few weeks later by crates and boxes.
I made a lot of mistakes. I rolled an expensive Edwardian dress into a messy ball and stuffed it into a plastic shopping bag. I also put a top hat awkwardly into a bag, though there were special hatboxes for them. I spilled a box of fake pearls, which rolled into the wide cracks of the floorboards and had to be sucked up with a vacuum cleaner. Wolf then split the bag open with a knife, like an animal’s belly, and emptied the pearls into a jar, but didn’t give me a harsh word, let alone fire me.
He never yelled and he was never angry. When I told him I had studied Danish and was planning to be a Danish novelist he laughed at me, but not in a cruel way, and told me he would help me to learn German too. It wouldn’t be so hard if I already knew Danish.
He lived above the shop alone, on the top three floors. He sometimes invited me upstairs, before or after work, for black coffee and black bread or apple pancakes. His apartment looked like a continuation of the shop: mannequin heads, boxes full of wigs and shoes, great piles of fashion books – the kind of books that seemed like useless, colossal monsters in comparison to the ones I loved. The walls were covered in pictures, probably cut out from magazines or even books. He had Sid Vicious, Pee-wee Herman, David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, Elvis, Marc Bolan, Twiggy, Andy Warhol – people like that, whose height of fame, and sometimes their death, happened before I was born, but not far enough in the past to be of interest to me. There was also a large poster of Betty Boop, posters for the films Pink Flamingos, The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula, and a cartoonish painting of a sausage with a smiling face. One wall was covered in halves of dolls’ faces: the ones who batted their eyelashes when you walked past, as the floor was so creaky.
The kitchen was filthy; the cupboards and stove were covered in grease the colour of earwigs, but one hardly noticed at first because of all the interesting stuff: a bowl full of plastic fruit with faces – the apple had buckteeth, the banana leopard spots and fangs; a Felix the cat teapot; Frida Kahlo pinup girls and cartoon animals as fridge magnets; the colourful cans of fish soup I expected would never be opened, as they had rust along their rims. The bottom half of the kitchen window was obscured by enormous glass jars full of pickles with bits of garlic and dill dancing around inside. On the table was a wooden incense holder shaped liked a shepherd with a long beard, holding a pipe, and a nutcracker wearing a hussar coat.
It happened on a slow day in the shop. It was raining outside and I had to rush to take everything in: the racks and shoes now crowding the front of the shop and making it hard to navigate. I grabbed one of the braided military jackets, royal blue with gold, and slipped into a changing room. At that moment I imagined wearing it in my Danish author photo, like some sort of Hamlet. As I had years before, I took almost everything off before putting on the coat and, as had happened years before, he appeared out of nowhere, opening the curtain. Instead of screaming, I turned around and, grabbing him by the shirt, pulled him in with me.
For our wedding, Wolf wore the same clothes he wore every day. He told me to choose anything I wanted from the shop. There were piles of wedding dresses, the kind girls purchased to wear at Halloween, their faces painted to resemble corpses. I felt like a fool, a bride in a costume shop. I borrowed money from the till and bought a smart, dark-blue dress suit, brand new, from a department store, with large buttons and a matching hat, stockings and shoes. It didn’t look how I wanted to look. I resembled an air hostess, as if I were wearing a costume, though that was exactly what I wanted to avoid.
My mother wore her best dress: a green sagging antique thing from the 1920s with a very old, faded peacock feather sewn on to a sash that was yellow, like an old band-aid, and a black-flowered shawl. My sister wore red Ukrainian dancing boots and a pink frock with a lace Peter Pan collar. I was relieved she didn’t bring one of her cruel, thin boyfriends from art college, who, like Raven, gave me dirty looks for not being beautiful. Wolf didn’t invite any family; I don’t think he had any apart from a few cousins in Germany. He did invite an Italian man with a ducktail who bought lots of jewellery for himself at Wolf’s shop.
I saw Wolf’s age for the first time on our marriage certificate. He was fifty-four years old.
As a wedding present my sister gave me a small painting of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf in bed together. It was painted on wood and medieval in style, the figures stiff and flat-looking, but with wonderful detail.
For our wedding feast we had cold cuts, black bread, spice cake and champagne above the shop. Wolf sat me on his lap, to the discomfort of my mother and sister, and after they left we made love on top of the stove. It rattled and swarms of cockroaches came rushing out, briefly visible before disappearing into cracks and cupboards.
Wolf took me to Copenhagen for our honeymoon. I had spent so much time in nineteenth-century Denmark that the modern thing was a great disappointment; it was much changed. I was shy speaking Danish in front of Wolf and stumbled over my words. He bought me dozens of Danish books and a Little Mermaid statue. One morning in our hotel, while he was still sleeping, on his stomach, I took the blanket off and looked at him: his slightly wizened and fat back. On one buttock was a dark blue tattoo of a man’s face; the man looked as if he were in agony. I hadn’t noticed it before.
To my relief, there was a pale and sour-looking young man with a blue Mohawk behind the counter, instead of the Germans. He wore a pinstripe suit with a waistcoat and a spiky dog collar.
We visited Dyrehavsbakken, the oldest amusement park in the world, and Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest, where we saw a pantomime with Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine. Wolf said he used to have Pierrot costumes in his shop, but that they had stopped selling. He might have some tucked away in the attic or basement, he said. Generally, clowns were not doing very well – the few clown wigs he had on display were dusty. We stopped in Berlin, where he bought a bag of pins and several old Soviet fur hats, which he would sell for three times the price, and had them shipped home ahead of us.
When we got home, I moved into the costume shop with a suitcase full of my cashmere sweaters, skirts, stockings, my Hans Christian Andersen complete fairy tales, Isak Dinesen in English and in Danish translation (I had written my thesis on her decision to write in English), my Soren Kierkegaards, Jens Peter Jacobson’s Niels Lyhne and Calico, my cloth doll, who had a pair of gold, lensless spectacles glued to her nose.
I was glad to leave my mother’s house; it was painted pink and so narrow that we called it ‘The Narrow Lady’. It smelled strongly of linseed oil and there were reproductions of Andrei Rublev icons all over the walls, and there was never anything to eat in the cupboards beside mustard powder, rye bread, weak tea bags and oranges from the weak little orange trees my mother grew in light corners of the house. Wolf’s fridge was packed with pickled things, cheese, beer, cake, meat and olives.
In Wolf’s bedroom there was a dark wooden bed with white blankets and pillow. I could tell by the stack of things against one wall that it was a new addition, that the bed he had shared with Eule had been different, and was now gone. There was a vanity table with a topless hula girl lamp on it, a spring rocking horse made out of plastic, with rusty spring bars, and a hat stand with all Wolf’s black hats sitting on it like a bunch of crows. The room was painted purple and there weren’t any windows.
In the backyard was a coach house full of extra mannequins, their hands and heads squashed against the window. There were faded, broken lanterns strung between the coach house and shop, and tangles of rosebushes with very small pink roses growing on them.
Apart from the kitchen and bedroom, there was a living room, full of Wolf’s fashion books and other stuff, and a small room he used for sewing and mending and ironing clothes. Wolf’s sewing machine was very old, made out of iron. There was always a dress half stuck in it; it looked like an ant eating a piece of lettuce.
The attic became my domain. I removed the moon poster. I found a blue metal trunk to be used as a writing desk. I put a fancy metal candlestick on it, as the attic light was very weak, a stack of yellow paper and my Danish dictionary. I wrote by hand.
I still worked in the shop, and Wolf still paid me, but I also knew he kept cash in the Felix the cat teapot, and I could take as much of it as I wanted; he never said anything.
The weeks leading up to Halloween were the busiest. We opened boxes and boxes of stock: fake wounds, vampire teeth, plastic swords and axes, make-up kits, cotton cobwebs, earrings shaped like Jack O’Lanterns. Raven wore ghoulish make-up. Wolf hired a few extra people around the store – a woman who wore a witch’s outfit (I don’t think I ever saw her face without make-up) and a tall man who dressed up differently every day – a scarecrow, Frankenstein’s monster, some top-hatted character I had never heard of. Wolf, like me, did not dress up. On Halloween eve the shop stayed open until nine o’clock – there was always someone who bought a pair of fishnet stockings or an expensive mask at the last minute. Then Wolf and I went to bed.
My sister, no longer afraid of Wolf, came into the shop on her free days. She borrowed things to use in her paintings or to wear to parties. I gave her and mother gifts: pink cashmere sweaters, scarves with foxes on them.
Raven didn’t know of our marriage. Wolf’s wedding ring wasn’t visible amongst all his other rings. Raven treated me with the same disdain he would a clothes moth. Wolf noticed this, and one day Raven was gone and never returned. It was impossible to picture him working anywhere else.
With Raven gone, there was more work, but it was easier; until I found out I was pregnant, not long after Halloween. I realized my youth and my fertility were a large appeal to Wolf. I had somehow thought Wolf was too old to get me pregnant, and so hadn’t thought about protection. Wolf didn’t buy any new baby things; he had everything we needed stashed away in his basement and backyard shed, as if thirty years ago he had planned for a baby that never came. He gave me some German books: a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales from the 1930s printed on very thin, almost translucent paper, written in script, with frightening badly done woodcuts; a copy of Der Struwwelpeter; and books by Sibylle von Olfers full of pretty flower children.
I discovered he owned a farmhouse, and when he told me he was driving out there to pick up a pram I insisted on going with him. Had he and Eule spent their weekends there? Had they walked around the garden naked, as Germans were said to do?
The drive was the length of the opera The Magic Flute: we listened to it on the way there. Wolf drove a very old van with fake leopard-skin seat covers. There was a jar of very old pickled eggs in misty water on the dashboard and crumpled balls of tinfoil from fast-food restaurants all over the van floor.
The house was red brick with a fallen-in porch and next to it was a barn with boards missing. They both looked like broken, abandoned pianos. Wolf said the house was very old and unstable, that the floors and ceilings needed to be fixed, and there could be rodents. He said I should stay in the car; he didn’t want me to get hurt. Once he was inside, I crept around and looked in one of the windows. The windows were dirty, but I saw him squatting, rummaging through boxes – the house was full of boxes – so many boxes it didn’t look like a habitable space, but more like a warehouse.
Wolf left the house, whistling the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria and carrying two large bags. The pram was in the barn. It was pale blue and covered in bird droppings, but he said he’d wash it.
When the baby was born, he looked like the child of Wolf and Eule: blond with large features, but he was quiet, like me, so I got on with my Danish novel without much fuss. We named him Wilhelm. Wilhelm looked funny in his old pram, wearing very dated clothes, clutching a Raggedy Ann doll from the 1970s, but many people thought it was quite stylish. My mother didn’t approve of me having a baby so young. My sister gave Wilhelm jagged crystals to play with.
I sometimes dreamt that I put on one of the coats and Isak Dinesen mistook me for a lion and chased me around the shop, trying to shoot me.
One morning, while Wolf was minding the shop, I went into the sewing room, which also functioned as his office – he used a corner of the sewing-machine desk to do accounts – and found the plastic bags he had picked up from the farm. One had two mannequin heads in – featureless, unpainted bald ones – and the other was full of small tin lunchboxes. I thought at first Wolf brought them to the city for Wilhelm to use when he was older, but they had pictures of aliens and Bettie Page on them. I also found a black-and-white photo-booth picture of a young Wolf: his hair was long and he had a dramatic animal-tooth earring in his left ear. Would he have loved me if he were young? Probably not, I thought; and though I wasn’t beautiful, there was still a certain shallowness to our age difference: would he love me if I were the same age as him? Probably not. I tucked the photo in my tights.
I opened another tin lunchbox. It was full of vintage sepia-and-grey pornographic postcards depicting women being spanked or tickled with gigantic ostrich feathers, and other pornographic images from the 1970s: blue, red and orange, and full of hair. Did they belong to Eule or Wolf, or both? A third lunchbox contained a plastic pouch full of grey powder.
I knew that was Eule herself.
Finding Eule’s ashes filled me with wild thoughts: Wolf would build a shrine to her in the shop, with the ashes in it, or put them in apple pancakes for me to eat so I’d grow to be more like her. Taking Wilhelm for a walk in his pram, I threw the ashes into a public bin, the lunchbox in another. The lunchbox had given me nightmares: that it would start speaking with its lid, like an object in a Disney cartoon, telling me that my sister and I still owed three hundred dollars for that mask my sister broke, and for me to leave Eule’s house; but it was gone, and Wolf would never find it.
He went to the farm every few weekends. I sometimes thought he was still looking for Eule’s ashes, forgetting he had found them already, since they were gone again. He returned with things that couldn’t possibly be whatever he was looking for: a plastic toy ice-cream van missing a wheel, which he gave to Wilhelm, bowling shirts (we had enough on display in the shop), a case filled with tins of kidney beans which turned out to have expired. He spent more money on gasoline than the value of the things he returned with.
I saw Wolf’s age for the first time on our marriage certificate. He was fifty-four years old.
He filled the attic with boxes of tennis shoes for summer and musty-smelling, thick, second-hand bathing costumes from the farmhouse. There was no space left for me to write comfortably in the attic, and even with the small window open, the smell of old shoes and swimsuits was overwhelming.
He went on other trips: one to another city to buy a heap of fur coats and hats from an old Greek man whose fur shop was closing, and another time to Mexico City for a week to buy jewellery. He thought Wilhelm was too young to travel and relied on me to mind the shop and the baby. When I had to, I put Wilhelm in the cage with the mannequin wearing a feathered Papageno costume so he wouldn’t crawl around and hurt himself, but he would tear at the feathers and eat them.
While Wolf was in Mexico, we received a letter from a historical society of some sort that said the sculptures were ready to be installed. Which sculptures? When Wolf returned, he explained that an artist was going to install a historical re-enactment in the shop. The building, our house, was very old, he said, it was a city-wide project to bring history to life. He said business wasn’t as good as it used to be: people bought things on the internet now. No matter how much variety Wolf had, no matter how far he travelled across the planet in search of wearable treasures, he couldn’t compete. The sculptures were already being talked about; the artist who was making them was quite famous. They had signed up for the project a few years before, he and Eule, the artist being one of her favourites.
The other locations were a very old Italian cafe, a nineteenth-century sewing factory converted into expensive apartments, the Natural History Museum and an underground train stop. The works all depicted gory scenes, as the artist said he wanted to expose the violent side of our country’s history.
Wolf was away again on the day the sculptures were installed. They were brought in wooden crates. The artist was a bald man wearing platform creepers and a tiny child’s backback. Bald heads frighten me, give me an odd sort of queasiness, bringing to mind a round encyclopedia of horrible things: crystal balls, marshmallows, testicles, turnips, eggs. I wanted to put one of our wigs on him. He was around Wolf’s age and had many assistants. They had floor plans showing where the sculptures were meant to go and consulted each other rather than me. The sculptures were made out of beeswax, like those at Madame Tussaud’s.
The first sculpture they unpacked was of a man with a red beard in nineteenth-century dress, holding an axe. The sculpture’s brow was furrowed with alarming detail; it was a wax sculpture. They brought the rest of the crates upstairs. The artist was unhappy to see a baby; he told me there wasn’t one when he accepted this location for the project and I had better not let the baby touch his artworks. We were responsible if anything were to happen to his sculptures.
They put two sculptures in our bedroom, each consisting of two people, two moments in time I had to contend with. One was a sexual act, the second a murder.
In the first, a man was penetrating a woman who was on all fours. They had moved the dressing table to make room for it. Like the sculpture downstairs, the man had a beard, but a dark-brown one. The woman had long black hair, which was all in her face, her gown pulled up over her torso, surrounding her shoulders and head like a flower, her bottom half bare.
The second half of the story was recreated in the corner of the room where our nightstand was. The same woman’s dress was cut open, I suppose with the axe, exposing her breasts, which were covered in blood from her throat having been slit. She was on her knees, the red-bearded man behind her, holding her by the hair.
Another man crouched, fearful and naked, in our living room, with a wet drip hanging from his penis. That was the sculpture I hated the most.
In the final scene, in the kitchen, the woman lay on her stomach in a pool of her own blood. The red-haired man was on top of her, in a straddled position. If you squatted and looked closely you could see that he was inside her, there was synthetic joke-shop faeces and blood on her body. Her dress was gone.
After they had finished installing the sculptures, I took the duvet and pillows off our bed, made a bed in the bath and put Wilhelm’s cot in the bathroom too. From then on, Wilhelm and I spent most of our time in the bathroom; we even ate our meals in there. The bathroom was the house laid bare, without make-up. It had green tiles with pale-brown, wispy flowers on them. The fixtures were old, stained with rust around their orifices. The windowsill and sink were cluttered with bottles of shampoo and soap, razorblades. There was a single framed image on the wall, of a man sitting on a rock, ‘Le Genie du Mal (salon de 1838)’ written underneath. He was naked, but was merely pen on paper; he wasn’t pink and made to look sweaty like the sculptures were. I thought it was a seaman, Neptune, sitting on a rock by the ocean, as he was holding something in one hand that looked like seaweed and he had fins in his hair. I thought that for some time, until I looked up the words in a French dictionary: the genius of evil. The glass of the frame was dirty with soap scum. His face could look like Wolf’s, if Wolf had had a beard.
When Wolf came home he said the sculptures were fantastic. What made him most happy was the throngs of people it brought in and the amount they bought: they left with fake beards and plastic axes, corsets and suspenders, gowns and fake blood. My sister came to see them, with a bunch of other students from the art college. I worried my sister would admire the sculptures because her own work was so violent, but she pulled me into a corner and said she thought it was different when a man made work like that.
Whenever I walked past the sculptures I covered Wilhelm’s eyes. Wolf said Wilhelm wouldn’t notice; he was just a baby. He didn’t understand that babies were malleable, like butter, and able to absorb all sorts of things.
Children weren’t allowed to see the upstairs part of the exhibition, but many came to look at, and pose in photographs with, the man holding the axe, the man waiting as his future self raped and murdered his wife at the top of the stairs. I went to the library to look up the story: it was all true. Of course, the newspapers from the time didn’t report any of the details. I wasn’t sure how much research the artist had done, and how much he was sensationalizing. The woman, Louise, had only been twenty-three years old when she was killed by her husband. Her husband didn’t kill the man she was found with, but chased him on to the streets, naked.
A newspaper did an interview with Wolf, ‘who for the past twenty years has run the city’s best costume and vintage shop’. There was no mention of me or Wilhelm. They ran a photo of Wolf standing with his arms crossed beside the man with the axe. When he was home, I slept in our bedroom with him, if only because I was afraid he’d become titillated by the sculptures and start masturbating to them if I wasn’t there to watch him. I slept with the duvet over my head, and wouldn’t let him touch me. I left Wilhelm’s cot in the bathroom.
The morning after I saw the newspaper article, I woke up very early and went down to the basement. I turned the furnace up to maximum. It looked like a rusty version of a retro toy robot Wolf had bought for Wilhelm. I was unsure if it would explode or not. I hurriedly put my Danish books, my plain clothes, my manuscript, which was much shorter than I wanted it to be, all the cash from the teapot and a jar of pickles into my backpack and suitcase and, carrying Wilhelm under one arm, walked back to The Narrow Lady. I still had my key.
No one was awake, and they didn’t hear me come in. I slumped down on the couch, surrounded by dark little paintings of Andrei Rublev and houseplants. A small tree had an orange dangling from one of its branches: the orange was almost the size of a pumpkin, but it was loose and dented-looking. I could tell the fruit inside was half the size of its skin, withered to the size of a walnut.
My hair lay in braids on either side of my face; Wilhelm was curled up under one of my armpits. There was dry breast milk on the front of my sweater, a ladder leading to a hole in my stockings and one of my bootlaces was untied. I was hungry, but no longer wanted the pickles: it had been a mistake to have brought them, the jar was heavy. Instead, I continued to sit there, and thought of the husband that would wake up naked and sweaty to find his young wife and son had gone, the sculptures melting and perhaps giving off terrible fumes, the mod podge pictures peeling in the hall, the masks and fur coats becoming warm, the glass countertops covered in condensation, blinding the eyeball rings.