Constance still has a feather from the parakeet Enoch bought for her. She does not remember how old her body was or how many years it had been, but she knows it was after he forbade her to leave but before he himself stopped going out, not out of fear but out of disgust. She doesn't remember whether she had wanted a companion or merely a pet, but she can still remember how she had delighted in the green and red of its wings, in the surprising squawk in which it had learned to say her name.
"They live for decades," Enoch had assured her. "It won't leave you for a long time yet." But in only a few years, the parakeet's feathers had begun to fall out, and it had refused to eat its seed. Constance had snuck into Enoch's laboratory and stolen a dropperful of the serum he injected into her thin arm every month. She had held the bird's beak open (never minding the bites it tried to give her), and squeezed it in until it had swallowed every drop. The next day, she'd found it lying on the floor of its cage, feet in the air.
The colors in Corrie's hair remind her of her long-passed pet—shocks of lime green, fuschia, and electric blue in the midst of the dark wood and leather of the library, the careful pastels of the kitchen. Even the way she moves is birdlike, quick and careless. The first time Aloysius invites her over, Constance hides in the shadows of the house, listening to Corrie's exclamations ringing throughout the halls, the echo of her footsteps shaking the very foundation of the silent floors.
Corrie comes over to use the library, sometimes. She'll stay in there for hours, searching through the antique books, snapping pictures of pages with her camera (a ridiculously tiny thing she can fit into her pocket), tapping away on her laptop computer. It's easier to approach her when she's quiet, absorbed in the same books Constance studies from. Constance will sort through books at the opposite end of the room, glancing over every so often to keep tabs on the colorful girl on the leather sofa; she can feel Corrie's eyes at her back, sometimes, puzzling over the pale wraith in the black dress.
Eventually she drifts over to Corrie, places a hand on the books she's arranged into haphazard piles. "If you're quite finished with these—" but Corrie isn't noticing her, her eyes are fixed on the glowing screen of her computer.
"Hey," Corrie says, "I want to show you something. You know what the Internet is, right?"
"Aloysius has taught me how to use it," Constance says, a little stiffly. "He says it's an invaluable tool for research." Nevertheless, she bends over Corrie's shoulder as the girl clicks her way through a gallery of images. It's a scattered jumble of strangeness; dead bodies with their guts spilling red and wet from their abdomens next to photographs of kittens with six paws or cones on their heads, pictures of children with no limbs or enormous, bloated heads next to depictions of grown men and women showing off their seamlessly split tongues.
Corrie is fascinated. "Isn't it weird?" Constance wonders for a moment what could have possessed someone to arrange all these unrelated pictures for anyone to see, and what might possess people to see them. But, she realizes, it's nothing new, nothing strange; it's the same curiosity that enticed her and Mary into Enoch's exhibit, the same desire for the thrill of the freakish that sent crowds to wonder at it, night after night, even as children were steadily disappearing. People don't change, not in a hundred years, even if the tools they use do.
"Look," Corrie says, and she clicks on one of the photos. It expands into a picture of a baby with gelatinous red eyes, swollen purple lips, and skin that looks like the cracked dirt of a desert, chalk-white with blood-red lines. Constance can almost hear its scream echoing in her head. "They're called harlequin babies. Isn't that gross?"
"Harlequin ichthyosis," Constance murmurs. "It's a skin condition, caused by the thickening of the keratin. Their skin hardens and doesn't grow."
"Really?" Corrie clicks through a gallery of them, pausing for only a few moments at each one. "God, that must suck."
"They rarely live beyond a week," Constance says. Something stirs in her memory, a jar she's dusted a thousand times. "We have one, I think. Would you like to see it?"
Corrie hesitates, but at last closes her computer and follows Constance.
Aloysius had refused to give her the injections. She'd screamed and wept and begged him for the little shot, terrified that she'd begin to age quicker and quicker, wrinkles appearing on her face and bones becoming brittle. She'd feared that one morning he'd come into her room and find her like the parakeet, feet up and stiff on the floor, cold as stone.
She'd come to crave the feeling of the serum slowly seeping throughout her body, the sluggish beats of her heart as it pumped the liquid through her veins, the soothing gradualness of her breaths, the dreamlike torpor that overcame her as everything in her being slowed down. Sometimes, she thought that she could even feel her very cells slow down in their frantic dance of multiplication.
The day he'd told her that there would be no serum for her, not then and not ever, she'd laid on her bed and felt herself speeding up. Something was growing inside of her, swelling and splitting through skin that was aging, drying out, shriveling up. She could not breathe, she could not move. She would be trapped inside herself forever.
It was then that she took the knife to her wrists. Aloysius shook his head over her wounds, had Proctor put ointment and gauze bandages on them. "She'll adjust," he'd told Proctor, as though she weren't even in the room. "She's been through a great deal of trauma. We must keep trying. She needs all the attention and care that we can possibly give her."
Constance had reached for the knife even as Proctor had carried it away, wanting to finish the job. They didn't understand—she didn't want to die, she didn't want attention. She needed to escape from her skin, peel it from herself like a snake or crawl out of its husk like a cicada. It was too small; it did not suit her anymore. She would only suffocate if they made her stay inside of it.
Aloysius keeps Leng's curiosities in the vaults, underground. He says it's to preserve them in the cool, but Constance knows it's to keep them out of sight, where he doesn't have to pass their deformed bodies and sightless eyes. She'd gotten used to them over the years, tracing the contours of their twisted bodies, talking to them as she dusted their jars and glass cabinets. Their strangeness had become more familiar to her than anyone human.
The air in the vaults is cold, clammy. Corrie nearly slips on a stone step, and Constance, more surefooted, grabs her hand to lead her. The girl's hand is warmer and softer than anything Constance has touched for a long time. As they step into the hall where the curiosities are stored, she is loath to let go.
She plays the beam of her flashlight over the jars and cabinets, illuminating the artifacts—a taxidermied kitten with one enormous eye, the Fiji mermaid sitting brown and dry in her case, the Rat King with its tangled nest of tails and glass-eyed rats snarling at nothing. Brown and green and black lumps that long ago lost their shape in formaldehyde, stacked next to painted lumps of disintegrating papier-mâché and tea-stained bones.
"Holy shit," Corrie says softly, her whisper echoing off the stone walls. "I always wondered what Pendergast had in his basement, you know?"
"Hold this for me." Constance presses the flashlight into her hand, and stands on her tiptoes to select a jar. It's heavier than she remembered, and the glass is smooth in her hands, a little slippery. She prays she won't drop it, and only manages to set it down on a lower shelf, the liquid sloshing about. Fortunately, the thing inside hasn't disintegrated as much as some of the others—it's newer, fresh-pickled by Enoch less than a century ago.
"Oh my god," Corrie says. She reaches out to touch the jar, tracing the lines of the dead baby's cracked skin, the bulge of its eyes. "Oh my god."
"I remember when Enoch bought this for his collection," Constance says. "The woman was very poor, and the baby had died within a few hours. She'd been to see the exhibit a few months before, and had thought that she might sell it."
"That's so fucked up," Corrie says. "How could you sell your own baby? I mean, even if it did look like this thing…"
Constance shrugs. She remembers the woman's tears, the pennies Enoch had dropped into her shaking palm. The woman had blamed the exhibit for the monstrosity of her child, saying the shock of the sights had twisted her baby in the womb. As though freakishness could be catching. Since Enoch was to blame for her child's affliction, she said, it was only right that he should take it off her hands, and compensate her as well.
Corrie is shining the light over the other jars, other exhibits. She finally settles on one--a shrunken head, mounted on a piece of wood instead of in a jar. Enoch had kept it under glass so that visitors wouldn't manhandle it too much, but the glass case it was in is gone. Its eyes are open, dark glass marbles that glint menacingly in the beam of the flashlight stuffed into the empty sockets. The mouth is sewn shut with strands of something pale that seem to be fraying, and Constance only hopes they do not fray enough to break.
The wave of black hair on the head is still unnaturally shiny, and Corrie touches it, stroking the waves with a tentative finger. Constance raises her own hand to her head, remembering the way her hair used to cascade down her back, how it had been down to her waist before Aloysius made her cut it.
But Corrie lingers on the hair only a moment before moving to the nose. It's broad and flared, a bright red feather stuck through its septum. Enoch had traded for it, pawned off a clumsily-sewn-together winged snake for the authentic head. There had been a small, ragged hole in the septum, but nothing to fit into it, and so Enoch had plucked a tailfeather from her parakeet and shoved it into the piercing. She'd thought nothing of it at the time, but now her throat tightens at the sight of the last remnant of her pet.
"It's real," she says, to ameliorate the lump in her throat. "The Shuar tribe of the Amazon make them. This head was from a member of the Cofan tribe, judging from the piercing."
Corrie runs her finger along the feather. "I guess people back in your time thought that was the really freaky part of it, huh?"
"It certainly made the exhibit more interesting," Constance agrees. She averts her eyes from the leathery head, the bright feather. She concentrates on Corrie's bright eyes, the sparkle of her piercings, the faint green sheen of her hair. "I suppose it wouldn't be such a strange sight to you."
"Well, it's not like there are Amazon tribesmen hanging out on streetcorners in Brooklyn." Corrie tests the end of the feather with her thumb. "I think, anyway. But I've definitely seen people walking around with body mods that are a lot more extreme. It's not a big deal in Williamsburg, though—the street I live on, practically everyone has a nose ring or an ear plug, or something. Tattoos. White boy dreads." She wrinkles her nose.
Constance imagines a street full of Corries, a city of Corries, a colorful world of Corries who do what they will with their bodies. "I'd like to see it."
"You'd totally freak," Corrie says, but she sounds excited. "I mean…it'd be kind of a culture shock." She lowers her voice, as though the pickled punks and shrunken heads might be listening. "I could take you out, if you want. It'd be fun."
"I suppose they'd all stare at me," Constance says. She thinks of walking hand in hand with Corrie in the streets of the New York she knew, dirty and dangerous and full of people who looked right through little girls. She felt invisible back then, more a part of her environment than a traveler through it.
"You get used to it. Back in Medicine Creek…" Corrie trails off and plays with the feather, slowly wiggling it, testing to see if it will slide out. "I was kinda the freak there. Here, I'm nothing special."
"Do you miss it?"
"I don't know. I can't tell whether it's that people don't think I'm weird, or I'm just…" Corrie shrugs. "Not really as weird as I thought. It's easy to feel like a freak when everybody else thinks you are." She gazes into the shrunken head's eyes. "I guess this guy knew what that felt like. Or would've if he'd been alive."
"He was dead long before the Shuar began the process," Constance says. "He didn't feel a thing." She closes her eyes and listens to her bones, tries to feel the way her skin slides over her muscles. "He was a normal man, killed in a normal tribal war. The Shuar changed him into something freakish."
"But isn't it only freaky because we think it is?" Corrie argues. "All that cultural relativity stuff Pendergast talks about—like, this is totally normal to the Shuar. It's just weird to us because we're not used to it."
"There is nothing normal about being killed," Constance says. She opens her eyes and focuses on the feather, ignoring the way her hands are beginning to shake. It's been months since she's been dosed with the serum, and she thought she'd gotten used to the feeling of her skin closing in on her. But she can't stop thinking of the Cofan head, of the brown crackling skin tightening around the skull, the feeling of needles piercing her, sewing her up. "There is nothing normal about someone doing that to you."
She squints as Corrie shines the flashlight on her, the view of the shrunken head mercifully lost in the darkness. "You sound kind of sick. Freakshow getting to you? Should we go back upstairs?"
Constance takes a deep breath, inhaling the smell of damp, rot, formaldehyde. "No. I should stay down here."
"Don't." Corrie takes her hand. "Let's go upstairs, okay? I'll take you out tonight if you want. We can get coffee and check out people with stupid tattoos and window-shop." Her hand is supple and warm and young. Constance wants to pull away before she infects the girl, before her skin splits and whatever monstrous thing is growing inside of her can escape.
Mercifully, Corrie lets go. For a moment, Constance thinks the girl will leave her in the darkness, leave her to petrify with the other freaks. But she feels something light and soft brush against her face, feels Corrie's hand brush her hair away, slide something behind her ear. She reaches up to touch it, her hand grazing Corrie's. The feather behind her ear is still smooth, and she can almost imagine the warmth of the bird's body under it, the warmth of its bright color on her fingertips.
"There," Corrie says. "Now nobody will stare at you." She catches Constance looking at her, and smiles, sticking the tip of her tongue through her teeth so Corrie can see her tongue ring. "Come on," she says, and tugs at Constance's sleeve.
Something settles inside of Constance. She follows Corrie upstairs into the light, colorful and birdlike.