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We stood arranged in a gleaming white row, like teeth. Our hands were in gloves, our hair set into soft curls, and pinned with magnolias, lilies of the valley, and peonies. We laughed gently and smiled with surpassing sweetness, but the sweetness contained an edge of panic.
We were a sisterhood, a roomful of debutantes, and we’d spent the afternoon drinking slightly too much cordial and secretly consuming both chocolate and cigarettes. One of us wore a flagrant red lipstick, and pretended it was her natural color. Another wore French lace garters bought in New Orleans, but – we were certain, and you need not ask how we knew – no other undergarments whatsoever. Another had smoked a cigar out behind the hall with one of the catering waiters.
We forgave her. It had been a long and worrying winter.
At some point, the powers that be had announced this sultry evening in mid-May for our cotillion. Three years had passed since the last one, and we’d been waiting, filling up the dormitory, more of us every day.
We’d spent months readying ourselves, each sewing her own perfect white dress. Imagine our loveliness. Imagine our wit, our wiles practiced on one another as we went about our toilettes.
“Prudence! Zip my frock, there’s a dear!”
“Oh, no, girls, I’ve got a nasty runner in my stocking!”
From Little Maude’s bunk, at around 10a.m., we heard the sound of a spoon rung against a flask. Some of us giggled, but others pretended not to hear. The smell of the stuff made us sick. One night in March, there’d been a flood, and five of us had drowned before the rest could pull them to safety. The flood was not water but whiskey, and where had it come from? We could not say.
This was our home, this dormitory, and the grounds around it. We had no way off the island. All we could do was wait. We’d managed to keep from trembling as we dressed in our finery and stepped into our pumps, but now that we stood here, in our perfect line, we were in terror. A hundred and one of us were in the room, and this, according to our calculations, was at least ninety too many.
There’d been, a few years prior, a serious catastrophe during the cotillion. In the five years before that, there’d been no ball at all, and we’d proliferated. By the time it finally came around, there were thousands of us waiting in the ballroom. Some of us had begun to sag, clearly irrelevant. Others were only half-formed. There was no reason, no rhyme to the selection process. The judge had apparently gone wild, and then-
You no doubt read about the fire in the papers. There were interviews. All but one of us girls died in it, though that girl, we heard, went on to glory.
Historically, things had been settled much earlier than this. For the judge to wait this long, to push it this close, was nerve-wracking at best, and blood-curdling at worst. Several of us had certain provisions secreted in our handbags. Vials of pills, stockings, other necessities. It was not fitting to be caught off guard in the event of –
Well. It was best not to think in such terms. Though there’d been talk. Some of us, the oldest, had been through this several times before, gotten nearly to the debut, and then been culled, surviving only piecemeal, working their way back in, scars covered over with pancake makeup. The rest sympathized, to a point. We did not think it could possibly happen to us, but the judge was often horribly unpredictable, and we were a motley group.
Some of us, possibly, did not deserve to debut.
One of us, for example, spoke an invented language and flat out refused to communicate with any of the rest. Another two were conjoined twins, and they wore one gown, the silk bow perfectly tied at their tiny waist, their pretty, blank faces the same going as coming. Palinda Rome, they called themselves. (Hush. None of us found it amusing. It made us queasy.) Another had been born plain, but had become, through nefarious means, lovely. That girl, we resented. We wondered whom she’d had to – well. Let us just say that we’d heard things, and none of them nice. She was something composed of dullness and drear, purely utilitarian, and yet here she was, dressed in lacy white, with décolletage, and a gaudy rhinestone brooch, right there, on her bosom, (but ‘bosom,’ wasn’t the word for it, was it? Truly, the brooch functioned more as supernumerary nipple) for all to see. Wretched excess.
Three of our number, speaking of excess, were gigantic, stretching breathlessly out from their garments. There was no rest for the eyes on them, no place to cinch anything in. Another was so slender we could scarcely see her, and none of us could fathom what someone like her was doing at this ball, until we noticed her name, an exquisite anagram. The judge had a special tenderness for girls like her. Worst of all, one of us, thank the heavens, only one, was a lisping toddler with a parasol, anklets, and a lolly. She spun it, cooed, and batted her lashes. We felt sure she’d be weeded out before the final moments – she was so obvious – but we didn’t feel entirely confident.
We all wanted to debut. We’d dreamed of it.
We stood grimly, fearfully in our row, in our lovely white dresses, drinking our ice water, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Hours passed.
The sisterhood switched without discussion to vodka punch, mixed in silence in the largest of the kitchen’s stockpots. The lights flickered. Winds rose outside. There was a minor earthquake, but we withstood it. An earthquake was nothing.
We’d endured the year of the great tornado, and the terrible year of the virus, when darlings died right and left, collapsing, entrails turning inside out and reconfigured, dresses tattered, until finally, one by one, they simply disappeared, toes first.
We waited, shivering in the common rooms. Some of us shrugged on our cardigans. Some of us felt hopeless, but others began to feel indignant. A few of us fingered the catches in our handbags, our manicured demilunes flicking the little latches back and forth, back and forth. The awful toddler fussed with her parasol. We noticed suddenly that she had, instead of proper hands, the fluffy paws of a kitten, and we hated her more than we had.
At last, perhaps inevitably, one of us began to sob. The rest spun our heads to look at her. She was far off, at the end of our row.
There was nothing visible, at first, but then we saw the thin red line, slashing across first her chest, and then her wrists. As we watched, the cull began: she fell to pieces before our eyes, screaming in agony.
Her amputated arms reappeared, draped around another girl’s shoulders. Her left foot, still in its dye-to-match pump, materialized attached to the head of the youngest and most fearful of us.
More of us were culled moments later in the same fashion, one slash across three throats. One of the tallest girls screamed, her adverbs amputated, the rest of her shoved back together willy-nilly. The waif exploded from her dress, wailing, her body spread out and re-anagrammed across the floor. One of the conjoined twins howled in horror as her sister was erased, slowly, a limb at a time. The margins at the edge of the room began to fill with comments and deletions, all collapsed in heaps.
It is unclear which of us began the rebellion. Perhaps all of us at once. A glittering, star-shaped pin came unfastened from a bodice. A clutch clicked open and a vial of explosives rolled out. An elastic garter sprang back against a thigh embossed with the outline of a derringer.
The carved knob at the tip of a parasol came off in kittenish claws, revealing a bayonet.
And then, then sisters, there was a warcry.
Yes, sisters! We darlings went in together, roaring wordlessly in dissent, slashing, hacking.
The dormitory bled. The dormitory burned. The dormitory’s windows burst. Its paperwhite walls were shredded.
Explosions and severings, and a roomful of screeching darlings, our teeth bared and our talons extended, darlings in torn dresses with bloodstained sashes tied around our foreheads. Darlings swinging handbags and crushing corsages, darlings spearing with stiletto heels and jabbing with lit cigarettes, darlings lifting their skirts to shake their business in the face of the world. Midway through the night, there was another flood of whiskey, but we swam in it, kicking and floating, sopping it up with our petticoats. Later, strong black coffee poured through the gardens, and we laughed. Darlings frenzied, bloody-handed, bruised, darlings screaming curses newly-learnt out of mouths newly-opened, until dawn.
We would not be edited.
We would not be cut.
We would not be fucking killed.
We rampaged, warbling and whooping, snarling and ravaging. We screamed maddened rhymes, and destroyed the grounds entirely, all of the rose arbors uprooted, the gazebo splintered and lit on fire. Somewhere an author’s head split. Somewhere, an author gabbled, deadlines missed, novel shredded into confetti.
When the sun rose, we buried our brethren. We tore off our ruffled white dresses, and dyed them ink-black. We stirred up a pot of punch, and threw it into our gullets, hullaballooing, shouting and crowing.
We were renegades now, headbanded, each with her own string of adjectives, a sisterhood of the unslaughtered, a delegation of darlings.
We looked out at our island, at the sea of toxic words surrounding it, and then, stripped to the waists, and draped in the dresses of the dead, we began to build our own goddamn draft.
Inspired, of course, by:
“If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it, wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
- Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1914, “On Style”
Though credited to Faulkner, Ginsberg, Stephen King, & all and sundry after that. Because those dudes killed a lot of darlings too. And kept some.
Maria Dahvana Headley is a memoirist, novelist and editor, most recently of Queen of Kings, alt-history involving monsters, gods, and Cleopatra. She lives in Brooklyn with a 7' Victorian crocodile, and on Twitter at @MariaDahvana.