The Guillotine by Nivretta Thatra
In an unseasonably warm December she begins to gel her long hair all the way back, all the way until it sticks perpendicularly out from behind her head. It’s a violence of its own making, transversally bisecting her head in two, poised for what it is to come. She has a lot of hair and it requires a lot of gel. Like a dark black blade, it waits behind her.
This makes it very difficult or nearly impossible to sleep on her back unless she dangles her head off of a surface; she adjusts the up-do so the angle of her hair-blade is more sagittal, so it’s at about 45 degrees from the top of the crown of her head. Sleeping becomes easier, but her dreams become uneasy. She dreams she is being followed by two blue eyes.
In high school she’d watched Eric Cao stride into class with stringy limp ropes of his hair hanging from his head because he had tried to shape it into a mohawk except he had used Elmer’s glue instead of gel. Which explained why the mass was drooping around his face, but really explained very little of anything else, such as what he was dressed up as, or why he thought this was a good idea.
Eric’s hair was dark, like hers. He told everyone that they should never put Elmer’s glue in their hair, that it smelled, and everyone had laughed, was also awestruck—they all, Eric too, had grown up with very little to be traumatized about, so there was no cryptic emotion he was trying to communicate with his adolescent stunt. No one suspected anything related to bodies gesturing for catharsis, as one might in an environment where children have experienced the unspeakable. This glue stunt was something Eric had schemed of in the middle of a CBC commercial. Around their table in Language Arts, they took turns pinching the ropey, gummy strands of Eric’s hair.
He eventually shaved all his hair off and she found this out on Instagram. Well, first he washed the glue out, and then grew into his face, which took ten years, and then he started dating Aaron Talligan. And then he shaved it off.
The girl is in grad school now and has experienced enough winters to know that really, this one is warm. On her way to campus one morning she watches steam rise off a bright red leaf like billowing plumes of smoke. The steam will make its way back to the clouds, she knows, because as children they’d all done so many worksheets about the water cycle. How such a childhood had led to the blade behind her head, she doesn’t know. Maybe everyone else had completed a secret part of the water cycle worksheet that taught them how water condensed into white cotton-ball clouds, and she’d never learned, so now she is fumbling her way through a grey thunderstorm.
Her courses are bland. Her advisor tells her what software she should install. Her peers contribute eagerly to class discussions, and their voices drone on and on.
This is also the December that she finds the boy with eyes like talismans selling Christmas trees. He shouldn’t be selling trees because she can see, even though he is wearing gloves, that his hands are a musician’s hands.
She is reluctant to engage with him, but her gelled hair keeps getting caught in the trees behind her, and he follows her and brushes the branches out of the way or defrosts the bits of her hair that freeze to the pine needles when she stands too still. He does this enough times, so quickly, so instinctively, and eventually she finds, to her surprise, to her joy, that she is following him and that she is going to buy that tree, over there, the one that he points to.
He is voiceless. When he was young, butterflies had taken up in his stomach, which could have been really delightful, made him full of charm, but the butterflies were as gnawing as they were fluttery. He’d walked up a mountain and shouted that he’d like for them to leave, and that they could use his voice as a sort of floatation device, if that’s what they needed to take flight. He gave up his ability to speak to get rid of the butterflies. So he’s voiceless.
Still, he says a lot. What he says begins to fill every room she’s in.
She says to him, “A thing that is hard for me is that I open my mouth and out comes smudges of charcoal.” What she says doesn’t seem to make much sense to a lot of people.
“That makes sense,” he says, without saying.
“Tell me more,” he says.
They fall into kissing. Bodies can do that, so they do. He’s not very good at it, she thinks, she thinks he kisses like a child, but she also really likes it. He is inconsistent and the discrepancies are alluring.
When she explains him to a friend she saves his most mysterious trait for last. “It was only after our first kiss that I realized that his eyes are so blue because they’re really talismans, not real eyeballs.”
“Talismans?” questions her friend. “Like witchy charms and pendants?”
“Yes, exactly,” she says, “I wish he didn’t have those eyes, because the only way he could have procured them is through nefarious means. He told me the story of how he lost his voice—this wasn’t an innocent Eric Cao story. There was shouting in this story he told me. So the thing with the eyes, it must be worse than the voice,” she says.
“Except he wouldn’t be himself without the talismans,” says her astute friend, who herself is in love with a paramedic with real crows’ feet in place of the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes.
“Yes, exactly,” she says again, the gelled blade behind her head seeming blacker than ever.
The girl with the gelled hair blade and the boy with talisman eyes spend the winter together. They plan to meet at a thrift store. She arrives while he is in the changing room. Wandering, she finds a velvet tank top and pinch-rubs the material until he walks towards her through the t-shirt aisle, with the softness of the hanging clothes outlining his loping body like old wooden picture frames.
They side-eye each other in front of a graffitied music studio.
They watch the skyline of their city from the tops of hills.
They wait in line at the liquor store.
He gives her half of his roasted vegetables, sips of his pear juice. Shares his croissant melt, chai tea, jelly donut.
With glimmering eyes and without a voice he says many things to her, mostly about expression, an act which has always come very easily to him. He’s always found ways to express, with how he turns his head, or with how he positions objects in space, or how he chooses clothes, or with the smell of crushed flowers in his palm. Which is why giving up his voice had never really felt so terrible. What’s clear, though, is that his favourite way to express is still through sound.
He folds sound into the way he walks down a hill to work, so that on his way back up the hill, he can listen to an unfurling.
“The sounds are a picnic blanket,” he teaches her, “Fold them up and let the blanket tumble from your hands, then quickly grab two corners of the fabric and lay it flat.”
“Is it ok if there are some wrinkles?” she asks him.
“Of course,” he smiles.
She tries to spread the sounds like he does, but she can’t, which is ok. She’s happy to watch him. She’s happy to listen to him be so good. She touches his hands and thinks about how hard it is to put music into the world and wishes she could give him a shiny trinket for luck, and it is only when he turns to face her that she is reminded again and again that his eyes are already talismans.
One day, listening to the music he’s made, she hears a sound—Shink!—between the layers of others. This particular track has a lot of loops in it, droning loops melted on top of each other, so the Shink! that she hears is distinct among the oscillating frequencies.
“What is that Shink!,” she asks the boy with the talisman eyes.
“A guillotine,” says the boy, without saying.
How specific, how evocative of a certain chilling mood, she thinks.
“Where’d you download the recording?” she asks.
“I didn’t,” he shrugs, “I recorded it in there.”
In there is his instrument room, where she has tucked her head in when he’s asleep in the morning, so that she can wave goodbye to the piano and sound insulation boards and guitars before heading off to campus. But she’s never seen a guillotine inside. She’s never seen one because, who would have a guillotine in their instrument room?
She makes her way to the entrance of the instrument room and flicks on the light—and there, tucked next to the harpsichord, is the guillotine: a wooden contraption with a sharpened blade suspended in the air. It doesn’t belong in the same place as the drum kit, the plinky piano, the amps and wires and synths, which all serve their purpose for making or interacting with sound. The piano is for melodic chords, or twinkling highlights. The wires are coiled up, ready to help link and provide power and bring a modernity to all these instruments.
She knows these things as certainly as she doesn’t know what the guillotine is for. Should one use it to slice into an apple without a knife? To cleanly cut off the margins on a stack of paper? What could the guillotine divide from its source, except the most obvious, except a head from its body?
The girl takes a step backward, and her gelled hair knocks against the wall.
“What do you use it for?” she calls to him.
“Nothing,” comes his reply. “Nothing! It’s not to be used. Please don’t use it.”
“Yeah ok,” she says, “then why do you own one?”
He shuffles into the room, then, and tells her that the guillotine came to him like another one of those weird things that happened to him when he was young, like the butterflies that initiated his lost voice. Like his eyes. The guillotine’s Shink! sounds nice with the piano, if it’s all planned well. It’s just a toy. One time, he recorded it, and it made its way into his music, that’s all.
He says, without saying, “It’s dangerous to use it for its intended purpose. Guillotines are for beheading. I won’t use it, and I don’t support its use.”
She can’t let the guillotine go. The idea of him owning one without using it, and the sound of it—Shink!—fascinates her, pulls at her as she walks from her bus stop to the boy’s front door. Once inside, her gelled hair smacks against the coat rack and she thinks in long soliloquies about the uses of a guillotine: that only an abstraction of an object can be devoid of labels and meanings, that real objects are intricately bound with their applicability, that a good object is separated from a bad object only by how the object is used. She concludes that the definition of the object must be respected to put it to good use, and she feels sure, now, that she knows the definition of a guillotine, and therefore how to use a guillotine.
The talisman-eyed boy doesn’t quite like it when she talks to him about all this.
He tells her about people who’ve tried to use it in the past, apart from himself. There was the friend who used the guillotine to open a coconut and cut his thumb in the process. Another who wanted to split a soft peach and had split their palm instead. His mother had stepped into the instrument room to tinker with the harpsichord and had somehow banged her eyebrow against the guillotine’s blade, opening a sliver of blood on her forehead.
The girl listens raptly but is not deterred from her interest. She’s sure she knows something these people don’t; they mishandled the guillotine, or used it by accident. She holds tight to her definition, to her conclusion: a guillotine, if used to remove something from its source, not just to cut—then, only then, will its true utility be seen.
She feels that the guillotine can divide without beheading.
When she tells the boy with talisman eyes of her plan, he is upset.
“Why are you doing this? Please, please don’t,” he pleads with his talismans spinning and kaleidoscoping, holding her hand.
“I have to,” she says, shrugging off her jacket in preparation for what she intends. “I want to. You have a guillotine. I want to use it. I want to show you. Listen, it won’t be horrible.”
She lays her head back on the wooden platform beneath the guillotine as he stands over her frowning, and as she closes her eyes she sees betrayal painted on his face clearer than a broad stroke of black glaze on a white ceramic vase.
In the mere seconds for which she has her eyes closed, she is calm, prepared. She knows.
Shink! goes the guillotine, whizzing a soft puff of air into her ears, touching and subsequently cutting off the gelled hair she has carried behind her for months.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” she says, sitting back up, removed finally from having to hold up her gelled hair behind her. “That felt right.”
Looking up from the guillotine platform, she’s startled to find herself in the middle of a barn—each stall nestling an instrument instead of a horse. There is silence: not only the voiceless kind, but all kinds of silence. She begins to call for the boy with the talisman eyes but is stopped by the thickness of the air. He is not here, she realizes, for she’s in a place that doesn’t contain him, and won’t be able to contain him.
Dust catches at her throat and she sees that it has accumulated on the surface of the instruments. She tests the kick drum and it resounds dully into the surrounding space. The barn has a window in it that wasn’t there before she laid her head back for the guillotine. Outside, an ivory bird streaks through the sky, moving from left to right, climbing up diagonally in the air and she dares not look elsewhere.
As she watches, another bird—a twin of the first, hiding behind its brother—splits out from the original. Beating their wings in synchronous consistency, they fly across the window and out of the girl’s line of sight.