by Brian Asman
ROBERT ALWAYS BROUGHT the same musty old corpse, year after year. I winced when I heard him dragging it down the hallway of Kelstro’s estate, the chains attached to the oversized birdcage he used for transport clanging against the weathered stones so perfectly cut by servants of one of Kelstro’s long-forgotten ancestors. Some people are so averse to anything new. We had all accepted Robert’s unwillingness to even try to entertain us, to surprise us. He was utterly obstinate in his refusal to play the game properly. We usually spent the evening ignoring him and his boring dead body, and between the snubbing and the joyless way he presented himself I often wondered why he bothered to come at all. Voyeurism, I assumed, though it was possible he meant it as something of an insult to the rest of us. And there was the occasional whisper that Robert’s interest in the Gathering was of an occult, rather than artistic, nature.
Tonight I had more pressing concerns than old Robert, however. The moment I’d entered Kelstro’s cavernous ballroom, a pair of hired porters carrying my own contribution to the evening’s festivities in a zipped up rubber bag, I knew that my attempt at the avant-garde was destined to fall flat. As I looked around the room at the bodies already on display, candlelight lending a sallow glow to their waxen features, I counted not one, not two, but three Asians. I’d thought I was thinking outside the box, not to mention rectifying the traditional under-representation of certain ethnic groups in our art, but the joke was on me. Asians were all the rage this season. Mine was of Chinese descent, with a dash of Scotch thrown in, a San Francisco attorney who’d collapsed from dehydration at Burning Man. Now his face was caked in white makeup, a long black wig on his head – a dead, transsexual Geisha. The obi hung open at the waist, like theatre curtains, exposing his genitalia, which I’d painted in a perverse mirror of the makeup on his face. Some of my finest work, I’d thought. Until I’d seen the others.
The great doors to the ballroom swung open, and Robert stepped through. He was dressed in typical Robert fashion: bright blue satin suit, cravat, gold monocle chain dangling lazily from his cheek. He carried a white-tipped cane, clearly an affectation as it rested against his shoulder. His sandy blonde hair was slicked back with pomade. He cut a dashing figure, which made his lack of enthusiasm in our gatherings all the more baffling.
Robert’s servants followed, two identical balding men in tuxedos. Each pulled a thick iron chain which was attached to a rusty birdcage. The bird cage itself was a sort of perversion of modern art. A chassis was welded to the bottom of the cage, and attached to that a thicket of rubber wheels like those on a child’s red wagon. The birdcage swayed to and fro on its little wheels, but somehow the porters managed to keep it on course. Robert had gone to the trouble of draping a leather tarp over it, even though everyone in Kelstro’s ballroom knew very well what was inside. Although there did seem to be a curious bulge near the rear.
What a ridiculous contraption.
Several of Kelstro’s guests turned to observe Robert’s entrance, then immediately turned back to their conversations and champagne. I glanced about the room, desperately searching for a conversation into which I could easily insert myself, but came up empty. My fellow guests had already closed ranks.
Robert spotted me immediately and began striding in my direction, his heels clicking on the tiled floor. His porters followed him, pulling the birdcage. The mass of rubber wheels attached to the chassis spun in different directions for a moment, like a mob of panicked people who couldn’t figure out which way to run, before falling in line and gliding as one.
“Barbara!” he cried, as a fake smile spread across his face. “How have you been? My god, it’s been ages.”
I offered him a fake smile of my own. It only seemed fair. Clasping his proffered hand in both of mine, I replied, “Robert, so good to see you.” He lifted my right hand to his mouth, offering up an unwanted kiss.
“Is this one yours, then?” Robert said, gesturing at my former attorney.
I nodded. “It is. Though I would have done something different had I known there’d be so many Asians.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. After all, this isn’t a contest.”
One of Kelstro’s servants, a woman wearing a feathered bird mask, walked past carrying a tray of champagne flutes. Robert grabbed two, handing one to me. Ever the gentleman.
“Cheers,” Robert said. “You know, we really should see each other more than once a year. We don’t live that far apart, you and I.”
God, was Robert of all people hitting on me? And at one of Kelstro’s parties? While there were no spoken rules per se, certain behaviors were consistently observed. Gathering participants were essentially sexless. No one had ever been caught schtupping in a coat closet at the Kelstro estate. It simply wasn’t that kind of affair. I’d also assumed Robert’s proclivities ran in a different direction.
I pointed at Robert’s birdcage. “What do you have for us this year? Let me guess, oh, what was his name? Gerald?”
“Jerry, actually. Have some respect, he fought in the war.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Which one?”
Robert shrugged. “How would I know? But no, I left Jerry at home this year. I thought it time to switch things up a bit.”
“Well, I never! I’m surprised, Robert. Pleasantly, even. Are you going to get set up, then?”
Robert shook his head. “Not yet. I think I’ll have a look around. Care to join me?”
Finally able to free myself of Robert’s company, I nearly shook my head. But I stopped myself. Robert had actually put in some effort this year. And there was something different about him. A sort of joie de vivre. Maybe this would be tolerable, after all.
“Thank you for the offer, Robert. Let’s.”
“You’re dismissed, gentlemen.” Robert tossed his cane to one of his porters and extended an elbow to me. I looped my arm through, leaning into him just enough.
Kelstro’s ballroom was lit by three enormous candelabras that hung from wrought iron chains. Wall sconces spaced evenly around the room provided additional illumination, and each wall had its own fireplace. I’d often wondered why Kelstro lit the ballroom with candles. The man was certainly no Luddite, and all the other rooms of his mansion, at least the ones I’d been in, featured electric lighting and modern fixtures.
The walls of the room were sparingly but carefully decorated. The odd tapestry with the Kelstro family crest, a dour portrait of a Kelstro ancestor, and little more. I often wondered if Kelstro even used this room, or abandoned it every year at the end of the party.
Our art installations were arranged at regular intervals around the room. Each guest, of which there were nearly two dozen of us in total, was required to produce their own installation. These installations had several common features. Each consisted of a dead human body, done up in whatever style suited the guest’s fancy. The body was typically fastened to a wire scaffolding that ran up the back of the legs, spine, and out to the arms, allowing it to be posed in fascinating and provocative ways. Somewhere near the base was a card, denoting the subject’s name and the name of the guest who had brought them. Some guests added in additional details: the age of the deceased, the manner in which they had died, even the hobbies they’d had. One year Connie Elbridge had foregone the card in favor of a massive marble tombstone, custom carved with the name and dates of birth and death of her subject. She had never been invited back.
Robert usually didn’t bother with the scaffolding, he just wheeled his birdcage into its allotted space and taped his card to the outside.
“What’s this one, then?” Robert asked.
We paused in front of one of the other Asian installations, this one a woman. She was dressed as a European knight, in a suit of armor, which appeared to be authentic from the map of dents and divots that covered it. A white sash with a red cross was draped over her breastplate, and she held her helmet in the crook of her gauntleted and greaved arm. The hilt of a sword peeked out over her shoulder.
“Betsey, age forty-four,” Robert read. “Oh, hmm, this is Kelstro’s.”
“Where is our host, anyway? I haven’t seen him.”
“I’m sure he’ll make an appearance at some point.”
I looked the armored woman up and down. “Clearly this is a commentary on the rampant Anglicization of Sino-Japanese narratives in American pop culture. White-washing, if you will, a la The Last Samurai. Interesting, but a little on the nose.”
“Yours was much better, my dear. Maybe Kelstro’s getting fatigued in his old age. It can’t be easy, putting on these parties year after year.”
I laughed. “It’s not easy attending, year after year. And yet, we do.”
A cluster of other guests, two men and a woman, walked by sipping champagne. The woman, whose name I could never remember, gave me a pitiful look. If only she knew that boring old Robert was, thus far, the most intriguing guest at the party. I gave her a quick wave and turned back to Kelstro’s “Betsey.”
“I think,” Robert said, “that it becomes far more important for us to attend as each year passes, as each of us gets closer to the day when we might end up taxidermied and posed in this very ballroom.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I said, finishing my champagne and setting the empty flute down on the tray of a passing servant. “Frankly I’m surprised you still bother attending at all. Bringing Jerry year after year like that. It’s just lazy.”
Robert led me away from “Betsey,” towards the next installation. “I’m troubled to hear you I’ve brought Jerry, in other years, for reasons as base as laziness. Toting that old man’s corpse over here is not something I’ve ever done lightly. Each year it’s been harder and harder to take what’s left of him out of the freezer, stuff and fold his bones into that birdcage, and have my servants pull him up the old stone steps out front. In fact, that’s why I’ve done something different this year. Exhaustion, plain and simple. I’m very tired, Barbara.”
“I did say it gets harder every year, but I don’t see how an annual event can be exhausting.”
“There are different kinds of exhaustion. I’m certain we’re talking about the same thing. Oh, this is fun.” Robert tapped my wrist and pointed at another exhibit.
A blue-suited man with slicked-back blonde hair pulled an empty birdcage, one that had been fused with a many-wheeled chassis like Robert’s. The corpse appeared to be about Robert’s age, give or take ten years. A placidly stupid look occupied its face, and it had been positioned to appear as if it were tripping over its own feet. In unintended similarity to my own work, the faux-Robert’s penis dangled, wrinkled and worm-like, from the fly of its pants.
“Juvenile,” I said. “Though it’s impressive Sacha was able to find a body that favors you so.”
Robert shook his head. “I just wish he’d done something less obvious with it. And to add insult to injury he’s omitted poor Jerry.”
“You know the rules, one corpse per exhibit.”
“They’re not rules, they’re guidelines. Oh well, on we go.”
The next installation featured a teenaged boy, tan of skin and with jaw-length black hair. He was wrapped in clear plastic. His mouth was wrenched open in the approximation of a scream, from which a furry little gopher emerged. The gopher’s own mouth held an unlit cigarette.
I giggled, looking around to make sure the other guests hadn’t seen. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
“Huh,” Robert said, “Sherry does like throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks.”
Another bemasked servant walked by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Fat little shrimp wrapped in bacon and speared through with toothpicks, bruschetta smeared with exotic cheeses. I popped a shrimp into my mouth, glancing at Robert as I slowly extricated the toothpick and handed it to the servant. God, was I flirting with him?
“Whose is this, then?” Robert asked, taking me by the arm and pulling me towards another installation. A small group of guests gathered round this display, the indiscriminate Sherry among them. As they saw us approach, they rapidly dispersed. Robert’s reputation as a terrible bore had rubbed off on me, apparently. Their loss.
Someone had put quite a bit of time and effort into this corpse. From the shape and size of the shoulders and waist I assumed it had been a man. The skin was completely flayed, from the fingertips all the way to the shoulders, as was the face. Skeletal arms were raised in a pose that suggested jazz hands. The body was dressed in a fuzzy Christmas vest, with an elaborate crown of woven reeds. The hollow eyes gaped at me, and I turned away for a moment, looking for another drink. No such luck.
“Now this, this is impressive!” Robert exclaimed. “Let’s see, who has graced us with such a beautiful specimen?”
“Tre Connors,” I said, stooping down to read the card. “Yes, it is curious. Different. Very different. Not really within the guidelines.”
“The guidelines are guidelines. Can’t fault Tre for ignoring them.”
“No, I suppose not. Though I’m curious to see what Kelstro has to say about this.”
Robert snickered. “He’s just the host, you know. Yes, he allows us the use of his home once a year for our curious little event, and yes, he is the one who established all the guidelines. All the mores, all the behaviors we all seem so compelled to follow. Though I can’t remember any of them ever being enunciated, so to speak. Certainly not written down. Why do we find ourselves, then, so beholden to his whims, year after year?”
“He’s the host. It’s only polite to respect his wishes.”
Someone cleared their throat behind us, and I nearly choked on the overbearing scents of lilac and tobacco. Robert and I turned to see Winsop standing behind us, picking apart a bacon-wrapped shrimp with his white-gloved fingers. As usual, he’d taken the requirement to wear formal attire to its logical extreme, although as expected he’d failed miserably in the execution. His top hat was dented on one side, and the tails of his coat extended only to the backs of his thighs. For some ungodly reason he’d even added a ghastly purple cummerbund to his ensemble. He ratcheted his cigarette holder to one side of his lipless mouth and stuffed the bacon inside.
“Winsop, so good to see you,” Robert said, visibly grimacing. I could only manage a nod, and found myself gripping Robert’s arm a bit tighter. Robert had become something of a pariah, thanks to his bizarre insistence on trotting out Jerry year after year. But any one of us would have gladly taken an entire evening with Robert and his boring old corpse over a moment with the tall, reedy man who stood before us. Winsop was beyond vile, and worse yet he wasn’t even one of us, rather a walking reminder of our own limitations. For whatever power and influence each of us possessed, we still required Winsop to make the whole evening possible in the first place.
“You’ve all done some fine work this year with the specimens I provided,” Winsop said as he scanned the ballroom. “Some of your best work yet, I must say.”
“Thank you,” I murmured through clenched teeth.
“Barbara, I simply adore what you’ve done with Mr. Hwang. And to think, his family was intent on turning him into a pile of ash. If only they knew the urn I gave them really contained the ashes of three cats and a week’s worth of The L.A. Times.” Winsop laughed heartily at his own story and popped the shrimp into his mouth, performing a repulsive series of facial gymnastics in order to both chew his appetizer and keep his cigarette holder in place. A casual observer might have thought he was having a stroke.
Robert removed a gold pocket watch from his suitcoat and said, “Well, nice talking to you, Winsop. As always, we’re quite appreciative of your contributions. I’m afraid it’s time for me to unveil my own mortem sculptura. Have some more shrimp. They look positively delicious.”
Winsop took a drag on his cigarette and tried to blow a smoke ring. Like his attempt at dressing for the occasion, it was a grotesque failure. The ring, half-formed as it was, broke apart immediately and died. Winsop smiled and gave a little shrug.
Robert heroically pulled me away, and more heroically snagged us a pair of champagne flutes from a passing servant. We walked across the middle of the room, back towards his birdcage. The rest of the guests still clustered in their little groups, chatting and observing the installations. Even among human beings with such singular and esoteric interests, we still expertly divided ourselves into cliques. For once, I envied none of them. Robert and I had formed a little clique of our own, strangely enough.
As we reached the leather-draped birdcage, Robert let go of my arm and strode over to it. I waited at a respectful distance. To stand too close would be to imply that I had some part in whatever he was about to unveil, or to imply that Robert and I were more than just acquaintances. That seemed to be changing, but if so it wouldn’t do for the others to catch on. It simply wasn’t that kind of party.
Robert scowled as he watched the other guests continue their little conversations in their little groups. They’d all seen us walking across the room, and since Robert had gone to the trouble to drape his birdcage they must have inferred he’d finally done something different. The polite thing to do would be to wander over and wait for the unveiling. Not act as if nothing was happening.
Taking a gold fountain pen from his pocket, Robert clinked it against his champagne flute like the best man at a wedding. The sound echoed off the corners of the cavernous ballroom, bouncing from floor to ceiling. Almost as one, the other guests turned.
“Ahem,” Robert called, his voice now echoing around the room. “I have something to show you.”
The other guests looked at each other, looked at the floor, looked at anything but Robert and his leather-draped birdcage. So awfully, terribly afraid of being bored for even a moment, although I could only imagine how dull their conversations must have been. For an interminable moment, I thought they would simply ignore Robert. And after he’d gone to the trouble of actually trying this year. Finally, the little pockets of guests began to drift towards us from all corners of the room, the odious Winsop at their heels.
When our fellow guests had finally congregated in front of the birdcage, Robert asked Kelstro’s staff to leave the room. Although he was not their employer, the staff were given strict instructions to obey Kelstro’s guests as they would Kelstro himself. The bird-masked servants filed out of the ballroom.
“Thank you for granting me a moment of your evening. As you know, every year I’ve brought the same specimen to the Gathering. Jerry. Many of you seemed to take this as some sort of lack of interest on my part, or even an affront.”
Several guests murmured half-hearted phrases of contrition, until Robert held up a finger. “No, no, it’s quite all right. I don’t blame you. If I were in your shoes I would have thought the same thing. ‘What’s wrong with old Robert? Why does he even bother coming? Why won’t he show us something new?’ Well, my friends, everything happens for a reason. The display I’ve brought with me tonight is one I’ve been working towards for a long, long time. It’s spent years gestating inside my mind. And though he’s not with us tonight, Jerry is in fact an integral piece of this mortem sculptura. For when you look upon one of these wonderful objets d’art, you are seeing it through the lens of the sum total of your experiences. It was profoundly necessary for you to see Jerry year after year, in order for you to truly see this!”
With a flourish, Robert flung the leather drape aside.
The gathered crowd stared in silence at the contents of Robert’s birdcage. Our host, Kelstro, stared back at us with dull eyes and a bruised, purple face. His tongue stuck out, slug-like, between broken and missing teeth. His curly brown toupee sat off-kilter on his head. His limbs appeared to have been broken, as they were splayed at awkward angles. He was wearing a tuxedo. A large mahogany chest, bristling with brass gears and levers, had been affixed to the rear of the birdcage. The curious lump I’d seen, evidently.
Robert produced an index card from his pocket, undoubtedly bearing both his name and Kelstro’s, and stuck it into the cage.
“Dear God, Robert!” someone behind me cried, who I think may have been Sherry. “What have you done?”
Robert took a step forward, clasping his hands in front of him. “What have I done? Why, my dear, I have done nothing less than create the single most memorable mortem sculptura this Gathering has ever seen! None of you will ever forget this image, am I right?”
“But, you, you can’t just kill someone,” Tre Connors protested. “That’s what Winsop’s for.” Everyone reflexively turned to look at Winsop, who loitered near the back of the crowd. He smiled and gave a little wave.
“You all take the guidelines so seriously. I never have. This wasn’t his Gathering, after all,” Robert said as he gestured at the now-departed Kelstro. “The Gathering belongs to all of us and none of us. I’m sure Kelstro would appreciate this, in a way. In death he’s finally able to advance the art further than he ever could have hoped in life.”
“I’m getting security!” someone shouted, and I turned to see a woman whose name I could not remember clicking across the tiles on high heels towards a door on the far side of the room.
Robert rocked back and forth on his heels in front of his birdcage. The woman reached the door and tried to turn the knob several times. Realizing it was locked, she pounded on it with an open palm, yelling for help.
“Come back,” Robert called. “I’m not done yet.”
The crowd murmured amongst themselves. Voices asked if we were locked in, if this was all some sick joke, the Kelstro in the cage a wax figurine, the real Kelstro watching us from some hidden vantage point and waiting for his cue to make an appearance. Some people even mentioned calling the police, though we were all reticent to do so. Although ordinarily no humans were harmed in the making of the Gathering, it was still an event rife with illegality and attended by individuals who clung to the shadows.
I was surprised that Robert had gone to such an extreme, almost as surprised as I was that he hadn’t just brought old Jerry again. I made no moral judgments on what Robert had done. The presentation was basic, but highly effective. And the presentation was everything. Morality was utterly irrelevant. Meaningless, really, in the face of this singular mortem sculptura Robert had delivered to us this evening.
I’d never much cared for Kelstro anyway.
The woman abandoned her banging on the door on the far side of the room and tried the other entrances, with the same result. Robert watched her for a few moments before saying, “Well, she’ll come back when she comes back. As for the rest of you, I have one last thing to show you, a final feature of my work. And then, do what you will. I simply ask that you quiet yourselves for another moment and observe. After all, this is what we’re here for, is it not?”
The gathered crowd murmured a skeptical sort of assent. I glanced at the faces behind me, drinking in the strange cocktail of confusion, outrage, and anticipation. Winsop looked particularly aroused, a profane grin stretching his pallid face to its limits as he steepled his fingers and hunched over, his cigarette holder now discarded.
“Thank you all, for allowing me to finish showing you my work,” Robert said. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, this next part will be a bit messy. Barbara, if you could?”
I took a tentative step forward, unsure of what Robert wanted of me. Fortunately he simply needed someone to hold his jacket. Ordinarily one of the servants would have done that, but Robert had sent them away, and our personal porters were gathered in one of the anterooms of Kelstro’s estate, probably gambling away their evening’s wages on some crude game.
Jacket safely remanded to my care, Robert rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, revealing surprisingly taut and muscular forearms. He opened the door of the birdcage and began to wrestle Kelstro’s body out of it. A few in the crowd stepped forward, but stopped short of actually offering to help. Holding two fistfuls of the Kelstro’s jacket, Robert positioned the body so that the head was poking through the door. He then carefully extricated one arm, then another, both of which flopped like limp spaghetti. No rigor mortis, then. Kelstro must have been dispatched relatively recently. Which made sense, as his staff would have noticed a prolonged absence.
Robert gripped the palms of Kelstro’s hands and pulled. The birdcage slid forward on its wheels. Robert glanced at the wheels, stuck a toe against the front of the chassis to stop its progress, and pulled again. More of Kelstro exited the birdcage. Robert’s face turned crimson. With another grunt, he pulled all of Kelstro’s torso out of that odd conveyance, the body bending backwards at the waist and flopping down to the ground. The legs remained trapped within the birdcage.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, Robert wiped sweat from his brow. “That should do. Don’t need all of him out. Thank you for your patience. The show’s almost over. Here comes the good part.”
Removing a pair of powdered latex gloves from his pocket, Robert donned them with a snap. He leaned over Kelstro’s body and ripped open his dress shirt, revealing a pale and hairy stomach dotted with dried blood and marred with crude stitching that extended from just below the bellybutton to the top of the rib cage. Never a fat man, Kelstro’s gut bulged ominously.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw that the woman who’d been trying to alert security had wandered back over to join us. This was all very unusual, but I wasn’t concerned. We had the advantage of numbers, should Robert choose to harm any of us. Although I did plan on re-doubling all of my personal security details after tonight, in case Robert decided to make an objet d’art out of me. I was not fooled in the slightest by his newfound affection. Robert was likely trying to ingratiate himself to me for nefarious purposes. Still, I could not wait to see what he’d do next.
“Barbara?” he asked. “Be a dear and hand me that knife in the inside pocket of my jacket, would you?”
I hesitated, unwilling to cross the line between holding a friend’s jacket (friend? Did I think of Robert as a friend now?) and becoming an accomplice to whatever spectacle awaited us. Robert was almost treating me like an assistant. I quickly scanned the eyes of my fellow guests, searching for any rising suspicions that Robert and I were in league together. Everyone seemed fixated upon Robert and Kelstro’s remains, not upon me. To ensure the show continued, and hopefully swiftly concluded, I took an ornate little stiletto from Robert’s jacket pocket and handed it to him.
“Ah, thank you my dear,” Robert said, popping the knife open with a soft click. He grinned at the crowd, looking much like the dandy highwayman of an eighties song, his fancy blue suit juxtaposed with the switchblade. Everyone waited, hardly breathing, hardly blinking.
The moment passed, and Robert bent over Kelstro’s corpse. Starting below the bellybutton, he carefully sliced through the stitches, the slight ripping sound the only noise any of us heard in the cavernous ballroom, aside from the thudding of our own hearts.
Robert shot the crowd a wink, then began to pry Kelstro’s stomach open with both gloved hands. He gripped the flesh on either side of the cut and pulled, widening the incision. Though I’d spent plenty of time mutilating dead bodies myself, watching someone else do it, and in such a coarse fashion, was a tad nauseating. I could feel the little shrimp I’d eaten swimming around in my stomach, trying to claw its way back to the surface. I finished the last of the champagne, hoping the carbonation would help, then let the flute fall from my fingers to shatter on the ground since there were no servants to take the glass away. Kelstro wasn’t able to protest.
Digging in to Kelstro’s stomach with both hands, Robert was soon up to his elbows. Despite the care he’d taken in rolling up his sleeves, small flecks of gore dotted the ends of his rolled-up shirt. He never broke eye contact with the crowd, and never stopped grinning. He was clearly having the time of his life. I had to admit, the visceral elements of his piece were absolutely astonishing. All these years, we’d been making death into art, but we’d always made something dead into something else dead. None of us had ever thought to inject life into the equation.
As I watched the true unveiling of Robert’s masterpiece, I fell a little bit in love with him. I also stopped caring that I’d shown up with an Asian, when so many others had as well. The Gathering was never a contest, not in the conventional sense, but one certainly knew when they’d won.
Robert grunted and then, with exaggerated effort, ripped something free of Kelstro’s belly and held it above his head. A few sporadic, premature claps rewarded him. He lowered the object to his chest, cradling it in his arms.
It was a baby, probably a newborn, wrapped in a dirty red blanket and covered in Kelstro’s bodily fluids. Absolutely, incredibly, erotically, fucking brilliant. I had never seen such a thing in all the Gatherings I’d attended over the years. In all my life, I had never expected to see something so extraordinary. My stomach settled itself, smart enough to know when not to interfere with my heart and mind.
“Hey, no fair!” yelled Sherry. “One corpse per piece, Robert!”
“Wherever did you find such a thing?” Winsop asked, his voice quavering to such a degree I feared he’d fall to the floor in an explosive bout of carnal ecstasy.
“Shh,” Robert said, pressing a finger to his lips while continuing to rock the child in his arms. “You’ll wake the baby.”
“This has gone on long enough,” Tre Connors said. “I didn’t come here for some damned performance art piece. We have guidelines for a reason.”
“Friends, friends,” Robert said, holding the baby closer to his chest, smearing blood and bile all over the front of his shirt, “do none of you realize what a truly seminal night this is? Year after year, you all trot out the same variations on the same theme. Death. Death is all you bring with you, all you have to show for yourselves. You think it’s so cute to dress a corpse in some fancy outfit, maybe even stick them in a blue suit and have them pull a birdcage. Yes, I’m talking to you, Sacha. You thought you were oh so clever, didn’t you? All of you whispered about me, chided me for never doing anything different. Except you kept doing the same things yourselves, bringing death. Well, this year I have done something different. This year, I’ve brought life!”
Robert held the baby out by an ankle, dangling it in front of the crowd. The blanket slipped and fell, and Robert slapped its naked behind. And then softly, the baby in Robert’s arms began to cry.
“What the hell?” someone shouted.
“That is most irregular,” Winsop said.
My fellow guests erupted in a chorus of questions, shouts, and threats to call the police, consequences be damned. I was struck dumb. Sliding to my knees, feeling the cold tile against my stockinged shins, I watch Robert rock the baby in his arms. The child’s cries grew louder, more piercing. It took no comfort in Robert’s ministrations. If anything, it grew more aggravated.
Still holding the child, Robert pushed one of the levers protruding from the mahogany box affixed to the rear of his birdcage. It stuck for a moment, and he pushed at it again and again until it finally gave way. From somewhere within the box a low rumbling emerged, and the visible gears began to turn. The birdcage began to shake. The candles in the candelabras above us, and in the wall sconces, all wavered for a moment. And then the very air in the ballroom shimmered.
From my place on the floor, so rapt was the attention I lavished upon Robert and his brilliant piece that it took me a moment to notice the movement at the edges of my vision. Distinct from the tumult of the crowd, as fellow guests advanced upon Robert or ran to the doors of the ballroom, banging their fists against sturdy oak and demanding to be let out. The movement began at the edges of the ballroom itself, and with every shriek of the child grew more manic.
Above it all, Robert laughed, a strained laugh utterly devoid of anything resembling mirth. “Life!” he cried. “I bring you life!” He roughly pulled the rest of Kelstro out of the birdcage, and climbed into it with the child. “Won’t you join us, my dear?” he asked.
I blushed, despite myself. Should I? I glanced at my fellow guests, desperately attempting to escape the ballroom. An easy decision.
I rose from the floor and squeezed myself into the birdcage, shutting the door behind me. Normally big enough for an adult male, preferably one who’d had a few bones broken or limbs dislocated, the three of us barely fit in the cage. I wrapped the baby in Robert’s jacket and rested my head on his shoulder. The child uttered a final cry and fell asleep. The mahogany box continued to rattle and hum, and the air in the room continued to shimmer.
All around the ballroom, the dead stirred. Even Kelstro’s ruined corpse twitched and spasmed on the floor next to us. Our mortem sculptura let themselves down from their scaffoldings and shuffled across the tiles, towards the artists who had made them. Hungry to become active participants in the Gathering, rather than lifeless displays, Robert and I watched as our creations seized the other guests in their cold, dead hands and began to create vitae sculptura of their own.