Short Story | “Lilith”
Originally published (August 2017) in Adanna.
Lilith lived in the stairwell. Cast in bronze, she was a rendering of the female form, caged within the walls of a gaudy bed and breakfast The Garden Estates. She had been cast in a delicate, demure pose. Her hands held her face as if she was too embarrassed to meet anyone’s gaze. She crouched along the window sill of the fourth floor, her knees tucked beneath her as she basked in the sun, maintaining her golden glow. Her eyes were shut, her lips puckered, as she mulled over all the days’ happenings from her perch.
The owners surrounded her with gold things to highlight the bronze glow of her skin, but not to draw attention away from metallic beauty. Young men admired her body, young women often compared it to their own, and children hardly noticed it, but always made it a point to wave and pretend-speak with her on their way to their rooms. Lilith was a fixture of living and breathing. She was alive.
The Garden Estates caught fire in 1994, and poor Lilith was left in the stairwell to burn with the house. Though most of the house was saved, the bronze figure hadn’t been so lucky. The fire had disfigured poor Lilith. Her hands, melted, were now black claws, tearing at the sunken flesh of her once supple cheeks. Her back arched as she curled in on herself, either as a painful shudder or in anticipation for prey that may meander up the steps. The most disturbing damage occurred to her eyes. They were once detailed eyelids with folds and tiny lashes that added life to her unmoving face. The lashes had melted and melded to her cheeks, creating two blank ovals, and the lifelike folds were nowhere to be seen. She was Lilith the sightless.
As old customers made their way back to the Garden Estates, many of whom once loved dear Lilith, they now begged the owners for her removal. She haunted them, they said. She was too ugly and disfigured. Children refused to walk up to their rooms beyond the third floor, fearing that Lilith might chase them as they passed by.
She was sent out of the Garden Estates in the back of a dump truck and was pawned off at the Goldman County landfill. She was then shipped on a ferry to New York and unloaded by a pair of Italians. The eldest went home and collected garlic cloves. He carried them in his jacket pocket to work for weeks. The youngest made fun of the eldest, but was wary of Lilith just the same. They moved dear Lilith from the port to another truck, wrapping her in canvas for the drive. It did little to protect her charred outer layer as the rough canvas scraped and scraped with every jostle of the truck. The Italians hoisted her out of their truck with more enthusiasm than they had ever at any previous job. On the way back, the eldest threw away the remaining cloves at a gas station, all while the youngest mocked him from the passenger window.
Lilith finally found her home in the basement of a bookshop, The Quill and Ink. The owner was a lanky man with a pinched face, and the Italians called him Lucien. He took little care when stripping her of the canvas wrapping, ignoring the cloud of black dust that came off with it. Lucien studied Lilith closely. His eyes squinted in the dim lighting behind his thin glasses. He didn’t need them, but he thought they made him look smart. His hand came to rest on one of her breasts. He took it full in his hand, then let his fingers trail down until they grasped the deformed nub that had once been her nipple. When he removed his hand, he found it covered in an obsidian-colored powder. He rubbed it between his fingers. It was oily. His lips puckered and his brows knit together before he finally shook his head and rubbed the grime off as best as he could on his tailored pin-striped slacks.
He wrapped unfortunate Lilith back in her canvas and stomped out of the basement, leaving her alone with boxes, books, and silence. There was the sound of metal scraping against metal, which made way for a near-silent whimpering that no one would be around to hear.
The next morning, Lucien came back to the basement where the weeping Lilith lived. He removed her canvas again and studied her closely in the fresh daylight peeking in through the single window at the far end of the basement. Dust floated around Lilith’s head in a fuzzy halo, and he couldn’t stop himself from running his finger along the knuckles of her hands, which covered her face and eyes. They looked dewy, and they felt wet. She seemed to be curling in on herself more than he had remembered on her auction page. Lucien peered around the room, checking the nearest box, but found the books were still crisp and dry. There didn’t seem to be was any moisture in the room. He chalked it up to the move and the cheap Italian labor before pushing up the sleeves of his frock and digging in his back pocket for his sandpaper. He went right to work on her oily skin.
The metal screamed as he scrubbed, and often times he had to stop just to rest his ears from the screeching. The light was already waning by the time he gave up. The charred flesh never gave way to any bronze and the whining of her body was only getting worse. He surveyed his clothes, his arms, his floor: all covered in soot and metal flakes, but there was Lilith in her obsidian perfection. He hadn’t noticed before, but a pair of onyx eyes peered at him from between her fingers. Lucien went to feel them, but thought better of it and wiped his fingers on his frock.
He took a cigarette from his back pocket along with a lighter, took a drag as it lit and then released a sigh. A cloud of smoke billowed directly in Lilith’s face. He took one more drag, surveyed his fruitless work efforts, then smudged out the end of his cigarette on the shoulder he had attempted to scrub clean, out of both spite and laziness. Either the ash had fallen off or it was too dark to see as there was not a single mark left on his sculpture. He set the remaining stub of his cigarette and his lighter on a box of unpacked books then stomped up the steps back to his shop. After some time in silence, the familiar sound of whining metal trickled into the room, careful and conscious of any eavesdropping. There was a light chuckle before all was quiet again.
Sunlight crested over the horizon and trickled in through the window, eventually illuminating Lilith in a hazy glow. Lucien was already clomping back down the steps, this time with a metal ice scraper in one hand and a broom in the other. He met Lilith’s obsidian jeweled gaze with a grin. He stood before her and marveled at her ferocious beauty. Maybe all of his work had been worth it. She seemed taller, uncurling before him, and her eyes were much more prominent as she stared between her open fingers. He could even make out the top of her mouth, tweaked at the corners as if she might laugh. Lucien had only sanded her shoulder, but figured his persistence had done the job.
Even though she already looked better, she wasn’t quite ready for his front window. There was still so much dark, burnt metal. Even if he couldn’t work out all of her former hue, if he could at least cut through the top layer enough to make her shine, that would be enough. He pushed up the arms of his tweed smock, let the broom clatter to the floor, and began to scrape away at her left breast. There was no screaming this time. The metal seemed pliable, softer, and came off in long curls, like chocolate. Only a few swipes in and there, the virgin glow of bronze. He held his arms above his head in triumph, but his celebration was interrupted at the sound of a screech. His eyes trailed up to meet Lilith’s onyx eyes. They had a bright glint in them, despite her facing away from the only light source rising in the room. She was also smiling. Full on smiling, though it didn’t look nearly as inviting as he remembered.
Unconsciously, he fingered the front pocket of his smock, but paused when he found it empty. He spun around to grab his lighter and cigarette stub, but only found the cigarette – no lighter. He crouched down to search by the box, hoping he hadn’t lost another one. Then, there was a whisper, a whine, and finally a clatter. He turned his head just enough to see Lilith’s lips part, which seemed to prompt an uproar of unfamiliar laughter, and at her feet, his lighter was beginning to melt in the flame of a burning book. Though his veins rushed with adrenaline, and his heartbeat throbbed in his ears, his body was locked in place. As the book at her feet burned and the flames began to spring from box to box, among the plumes of smoke and ember, she glowed.