I only knew her for one night. She was performing a show where she screamed for two hours uninterrupted without a single variation in pitch. I had no plans for the evening. Over a Sazerac, the hotel bartender told me he’d won a ticket in a raffle for donating plasma and her performance had been the greatest catharsis he’d ever known. Apparently, she wore a different ballgown each night, so phantasmagoric the audience forgot she existed off-stage, more illusion than woman. That night, her dress was the colour of a tear and melted around her folded knees like it was fossilizing her in polychromatic glass. I sat in seat 37J. The sound hummed inside my bones like neon. Her throat was pried open like a lyre. I did not blink the entire performance. Perhaps she recognized my ascension because she beckoned me to her dressing room and crowned me with a tiara made of blue spinels, draped my collarbones in alabaster. She said I looked like a dragon with the gems speared into my hair, but perhaps it was the lighting: candles, a disco ball incandescent on the floor, a pirouette of incense. Her whisper was even lovelier than her scream. We did not undress each other, contrary to popular belief. First, we played a hand of solitaire, ordered truffle tagliatelle from the restaurant next door, then as we ate compared traumatic events from our childhoods to which she greatly outmatched me. The entire encounter felt like a vivisection. Much later, I would read conspiracies, exposés about our encounter tucked into tabloid magazines, their spines frayed apart in dimly lit metro cars. This was long after I’d left town on the high-speed railway that looked like a minnow swimming far below its intended depth. I could not shake the hangover buzz of the city and spent the entire trip with my palms against the crushed-velvet seat, aware of my blood pressure, thinking about how I could hold my breath so long I’d faked drowning on several occasions (always as a form of fleeing) yet had never contemplated the morality of this action. Through the opposite window, night looked like unblemished titanium, burnished by the train car’s movement. Articles said she was a cyborg or a figment of the imagination, and that everyone in the room that night should be assessed for collective psychosis. One newscaster wearing a peacock-blue blazer—who I observed as I waited to board a plane that would have people clinging to the wingspan upon takeoff—said she was a hologram and her scream played on a pipe organ below stage. I forgot the organ was an instrument and imagined a musician fitting nimble fingers into soft pink lungs, cupping his lips to the pulmonary artery. In another city, I walked past skyrises honeycombed with LED billboards until I found one advertising her latest show, her name sequined and holographic with a single bulb burnt-out. There were many rumours about the night we’d spent together. I’d heard that we’d fed each other seared foie gras to start the evening, and I’d then unlatched her corset with the point of a dagger. You can imagine the story from that point onwards. The truth is, I had touched her, felt the flesh of her inner arm when she asked me to check her pulse. Despite my lack of medical training, I located her heartbeat instantly. Sometimes I imagine taking an interview and telling them about how we’d traced each other’s teeth with such intention we could identify the other’s time-eroded corpse, but I cannot bring myself to speak of these intimacies. Strangest of all about that evening was when she had scooped a goldfish from the beryl-bright tank and waited until it rasped for relief before she slipped it back into the water and it fluttered there like a silk scarf. She said she did this after every show. The fish must have forgotten this cruelty the instant she returned it to safety, because it had swum right into her palm.
Shaelin Bishop (they/she) lives and writes on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh land. Their fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, The Puritan, Room, CAROUSEL, Plenitude, PRISM international, The New Quarterly, The Common, and elsewhere. They were longlisted for the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram @shaelinbishop.