{licorice, laudanum}

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{licorice, laudanum}

{licorice laudanum} Kristy Bowen dancing girl press & studio

Based in Chicago, dancing girl press & studio creates a variety of open & limited edition books, art, and paper goods, as well as various ephemera-inspired gifts and accessories. The dancing girl press chapbook series was founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of emerging women writers and artists. Spawned by the online zine wicked alice, the series seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques—work that's fresh, innovative, and exciting. The press has published numerous titles by emerging women poets in delectable open-run handmade editions. Our books are available via our website, at select independent bookstores, Chicago area literary events, and through author readings. www.dancinggirlpress.com editing & design: Kristy Bowen dancinggirlpress@yahoo.com

The women are falling, one by one, through the floors. Here in the midwestern gloom. In the hullabaloo. They open their mouths and sass sizzles out like steam. A few blocks away and under a bridge, the streets smell like slaughter. It's all meat, all of us, moving through corridors and down the shoots, black skirted. We were already ghosts, already hosts to the sort of yearnings that creep about unattended. The daughters who wander too far away from mothers, their fathers soft with whiskey. Build a structure, pull a lever, and they fall through it again and again and into the city's beating, dark heart.

On the midway, the men are mustachioed and maudlin. The braver ones dawdle nearby, wives woozy with sugar. Children thick with ribbon candy and cream of wheat. They watch as her arms twine the reptile about the body, the tip of its tale resting soundly between her breasts. Out west, she did this act for 10 cents on the dollar, slithered her way into evening gowns and out of them just as quickly. Another beast, another name, but still the same beat in her grasp. The same gasp of amazement when the creature wrapped round her neck and squeezed just enough she saw stars.

If you build a trap, the mice will come. One by one, dive off the platform and into a bloody swimming pool. How we practice our foolish dances with fans and feathers. Our perfect murders. This one faints at the sight of needles, so we feed her to the dog. The long chute into the cellar. Down we go, and up the stairs climbs the next one. So petite, her hair spun from Iowa gold. The farmers, daughter who lay down with the cows in the barn to keep the calves warm. He loved me, but liked her best. How she'd sing the next days slaughter to sleep.

In dreams all night, she builds. Window frames, tilted counters. Room after room unfolding into darkness. On the midway, a man pulled a rabbit from a hat. A quarter from behind her ear. It was the closest anyone had touched her in years, the heat of his fingers a surprise as they brushed past the lobe. Later, she’d lay down on the bed and ached. Tried out the tenor of her voice against the mirror. The parlor behind her yawning into the hallway, the women filtering, floating, one by one, to their rooms.

While the murderer sleeps, the midway creeps along til the end and then dissolves in a fit of blackness. Behind the building facades, the bar girls are getting down to business. The lights flickering through doors and windows to rooms that aren't really there. But then again, the city was ashes only a few years back. A smoldering stockyard that still smelled like death, no matter how much it burned. How much we yearned for that wide expanse of lake opening to the east. The beast already inside just waiting to be woken. The architecture broken and rebuilt with plywood and so white, we surely thought of angels, lifting up and over the ferris wheel.

Never trust a pharmacist. His rooms without doors, doors without rooms. Never trust the sweet pull of stairways vanishing into shadow. I was a good girl, with good teeth. A good upbringing, my mama's whites the whitest in Kansas. No one would have seen it coming, my swift departure from ordinary, quick heeled and through. I packed my bags, my umbrella, and fell into a dream full of swirling lights and sideshow women. My dress undone and enough breath inside me to blow me clean across the prairie and into the city's yawning mouth.

The pharmacist puts us inside the trunk. Takes us out. Rakes his fingers through our hair like dolls, then smothers us with chloroform. If you love it enough, you can kill it with impunity. The box of unruly kittens. The rabbits in their filthy cage. All loved to the point of death. On the train platform, we waited for a mother who never showed. Our joints grown stiff with affection, tongues locked with disuse. How we refused the candies he offered us in their tiny lavender wrappers. Crawled into the box for the night and never crawled out. Our fingers fumbling the latches he installed in our throats.

See the walls made of paper. The floors made of glass. In the asphyxiation rooms, the fixtures are genuine brass that tarnishes in your hands. If you build a castle, the mice will chew through the baseboards all day and night. Will frighten away the dowagers willing to pay good money for gossip thick as honey. Will tick away their days with checkers and backgammon. Fashion their whispers into threads that tangle and hang from the windows above the street. In the heat, everything smells like standing water. Even the women in their Sunday best. The bundle of laundry hung above the tub never dry, not completely, The creep of mold through all their openings.

We now come to the part of our tour where everything is on fire. Save yourself, your children, your dead aunt's ashes in their tiny cup. All part of the swindle. The great hustle. Now it's burning, now it's not. If I flare the gas lamps, we can approximate what it's like to smolder without dying. The women flicker at the edges and go dark, while in the park across the street, the bums are starving. For a quarter, I can show you death, plump as a cockroach. You keep covering your eyes and then uncovering them. The tabloids soak with rain and your dress rips on the door nail. For a dollar, you can lie down in a dead woman's bed and burn.

The man in the hotel lifts his hammer. Levies his weight against the silence, the violence of attics and cellars dank with moss. Across town, we drink tea while the animals in the zoo poise and preen. The lion forced to live alone, they say, the bite of his teeth on the nape of his mate too rough for comfort. How he moans all night for his love now that she's been taken away. We play chess in the candlelight sometimes, and it's there, that feral gloom. In the the other room, the clock you stole chiming like a myna bird every morning while I wash the blood stains from your clothes. The teeth that rattle like nails in your pocket.

Every cadaver is worth a pretty penny, every Jenny worth a pretty bit. Penny, Jenny, and even Marys--$100 if you can slough the skin from the bones. Slog through rooms shuttered and dusted with quicklime. She was a fine piece, good bones, her skin pink, like the inside of a shell. You could tell she was a looker, a cooker, a class A bit of ass. Dived down into the well and just kept on diving. Five dollars and you can see her eyes, resting in this tiny box. A quarter and I'll sell you a bit of hair, the lace hem of her dress. She won't need it now, her spaces occupied by the sticky fingers of doctors. The pluck and strum of her ribs.

When the lights go out, we sigh. Shuffle beneath heavy covers. The lovers above us, below us, beside us, dead with sleep . Dead with dollars fisted bit by bit from women loose with purses, fat with railroad money Honey, he'll say, lie down in this box. Dear, hide this baby beneath your skirt. This shin bone, this bloody hammer. All the putting in, but oh, the pulling out. Silver candlesticks and a silk sofa . This perfect diamond ring wrested from the fingers of the landlords wife, after she lay down, dead with wonder.

Gossip shakes like a bag of marbles. Shift them properly and they fall out a woman's mouth, smooth and cold and black as tar. Before, in the pharmacy, I'd take notes on dying. Fiddle with the pills and powders until I could lie down on the bed and see the stars through two floors of rooms. My silence a boat he could climb into and out of at will. Now the doctors come and eat cake in vaulted rooms , their wives pulling at the loose strings of my apron. One offers me a drink and a brooch shaped like a spider. I hide it in the bureau and pray he won't find it, the tiny eyes fat and black.

In Chicago, he trades aliases like corpses. Digs another from beneath the cellar and offers it up to the guests. At first he seemed the best sort of interlocutor. A cloak room lurker. Killed the young drugstore clerk and buried him in the plot of land across the street. But now I have all his knives hidden in my cupboard and we go days without touching. Brushing up on our madness like the worst sort of domesticity. He waves a silver coin in front of my eyes and I fall soft as a kitten to his side. Buries my sister in my rose garden, pawns my best pearls. Every night, the roof leaks while makes me call him another name. The wallpaper soaks through with rain.

He ends with the rope, but I end with the ghost. How I kept rearranging the bodies until they pleased me. Eased the executioner's arthritic fingers til he let the latches fly with abandon. Placed random daisies around the house until the new wife coughed up a spider the size of spoon's bowl. Dead women are for more interesting than the living. Giving up our pretty thighs in the dark. Where my throat should be, a single ribbon used to tie my wrists where he dumped me in the river. My tongue, a single stone he used to weigh me down. Everything else is pull and drag, the slow decent through ether.

Downstairs, the women line up to measure their waists. To measure their hearts with a tiny device. It was nice, she thought, to place her hands against the table. To, for once, inhabit the space of the body. To slip from corsets and dark skirts. To float above, if only for a moment. The torment of kitchens and waste bins full of diapers. To lie down and spread the body as wide as was possible and let something be taken. Lifted from her and returned. And so much blood. Like as a child, she lie down on the ice and waited for it to break.

NOTE {licorice, laudanum} is based on the legend of H.H. Holme’s infamous “Murder Castle” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. While the details are murky and the story fanned by tabloids, H.H Holmes was guilty of several murders and financial swindling during the years surrounding the fair. While he is of cited as the first great American serial killer, little evidence was found implicating him in diabolic building schemes, and much more in the way of opportunistic crimes, particularly against women, to cover up other crimes (forgery, thievery, kidnapping) . The murder castle itself, its hidden rooms and labyrinth-like construction, may have been, too, distorted by the tabloids until a fire destroyed it not long after. Regardless, it’s an interesting story and legend, there at a historic moment where the world was changing and becoming both smaller and larger at the same time. And as with any created legend, tells us as much about our fascinations and obsessions now as it did then.

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