A Process Note
Last year, I started doing research on one of the bits of Chicago local history I find most fascinating–HH Holmes and his “Murder Castle”. How a man could get away with murdering Worlds’s Fair attendees, supposedly by the dozen, and no one be the wiser. There was a lot of research involved, and in the end, it was hard to separate out the facts from tabloid coverage (not to mention Holmes was himself a compulsive liar who over-inflated his kill rate. ) In the end, the series became more about the women who seemed to be both drawn in by him (including several he illegally married) and the women he killed (usually, with one exception, these were one in the same.) As the text elements formed, I wanted some sort visual manifestation and began playing with some victorian clip-art images, which are always a favorite of mine–and I wanted to capture the sort of gloss and promise of something like the Columbia Exposition with the seedier undertones of Chicago’s industrial history.
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.
A writer and book artist working in both text and image, Kristy Bowen is the author of a number of chapbook, zine, and artist book projects, as well as several full-length collections of poetry/prose/hybrid work, including SALVAGE (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) and MAJOR CHARACTERS IN MINOR FILMS (Sundress Publications, 2015). She lives in Chicago, where she runs dancing girl press & studio. She is the author of two forthcoming collections, LITTLE APOCALYPSE (Noctuary Press) and SEX & VIOLENCE (Black Lawrence Press).