Scenes from the Life of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World
Karl unwinds the rusted chain from the knob with a muffled clank. A flicker of light catches his eye and he turns to see Jonas, lit cigarette in his mouth, twitching from foot to foot.
Leif hisses at Jonas to put it out, and Jonas shrugs, takes a long drag, and tosses the cigarette down at his feet, smearing it against the pavement. Karl gives him a look, eyes widened, mouth drawn into an exaggerated frown. All at once, hilarity threatens to overcome them and all three sway, stifling their laughter.
Leif leads the way, pulling the door open with a slow creak. Two flashlights point their beams into the dark expanse. Karl lurches behind. He is a little drunk.
Together they move slowly down the dark aisle. Indistinct forms lumber over them, covered in tarps and sheets. Jonas goes over and pulls up one of the cloths. They hear a skittering sound and Karl feels goose bumps rising under his shirt; he hates rodents. The flashlight beam illuminates a white horse’s head, faded paint on wood. Jonas pulls the sheet back further, revealing a gold horn.
Check it out—a unicorn, Jonas grumbles, and lets the sheet fall back into place.
The last place they broke into was an old munitions factory outside the city. They had spent plenty of time there, casting their flashlights over the stripped machines, drinking until they could barely stand. This warehouse is closer in, near where the fairgrounds used to be, and there is anxiety and thrill in the possibility of being caught.
They hear a low whistle. When they find Leif, he is standing in front of what looks like the remains of a carousel. With a laugh, he tries to crawl on top of a lion and digs in his heels, as if bidding it to go. Jonas heads over to join him, but Karl turns from them, allowing the flashlight to linger over a phantasmagoria of objects: a sign with a horrid clown painted on it, a pile of brightly colored moth-eaten costumes, a board for throwing balls through.
He wanders slowly away from the other two boys. For a moment the light glints blindingly against glass, and he gives an inadvertent cry. He can hear the others’ footsteps behind him.
Jesus Christ, Leif says. What is it?
In response, Karl directs the flashlight over the object sealed in the tall glass case: the figure of a woman, standing upright in a faded purple dress. She has a monster’s face, covered in long dark hair around her temples and chin, her bottom lip jutting forward like a gorilla’s.
New York City 1855
Theodore Lent pushes into the small tent. It is an unseasonably hot day in May and the stink in the streets threatened to overwhelm him on the walk from his rented rooms on Vesey Street. Now women in the crowd hold nosegays to their faces and the men press damp handkerchiefs against their temples.
He has wasted most of the spring attending similar events. There were the “Siamese” twins, girls held together by a wrapped sheet around their waists that wouldn’t fool even the most near-sighted man. The woman with the beard glued on with paste. The strong man with the muscles molded from clay.
The one real find had been the girl with four legs—one regular pair of legs, strong and healthy and reaching to the floor, and another pair that hung down lifeless to her knees. She wore two pairs of matching boots. Lent didn’t dare believe the legs were genuine, but her manager, a man named Johnson, allowed him to touch them. Lent could still feel the limp, warm-stockinged things in his hands. They were real, rising up into the depths of her skirt, where somehow, unimaginably, they joined that other pair of mundane, functional legs. The girl’s face was impassive, her skin pale and freckled, framed with light curls. But Johnson only laughed at him when he asked for a price. Lent hadn’t been able to sleep for days after. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw those legs.
A dark-skinned man walks to the front and asks everyone to take a seat. Lent remains standing near the back. The man speaks with a strong Spanish accent. Lent does not bother to catch his name.
From the depths of the African Continent, the man intones, I bring you this rare creature. She is the link between mankind and the ourang outang. Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you Julia Pastrana, the Ape Woman!
A tent flap rustles and a figure appears, draped from head to waist in a white cloth. The skirt visible beneath the sheet is bright green. The feet are small and delicate, as is the lightly browned hand grasping the Spaniard’s. He positions her carefully in the middle of the stage and with a flourish, pulls off the covering.
Gasps and exclamations fill the tent. A woman in the first row stands up and then collapses into the arms of the man next to her.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ladies and Gentlemen! the Spaniard says in his loud, nasal voice. I do not mean to shock you.
Lent can hardly breathe. The girl is truly ugly. It is as if someone had placed the head of an animal on a human body. Thick, unfastened hair bristles off her head, her forehead, temples and chin. The nose is thick and flattened. The bottom lip and chin jut forward, as does the hairy brow, overshadowing the dark, black eyes. But she has a lithe, well-defined figure outlined under the green dress. The girl’s eyes, initially cast down to her feet, rise slowly to meet the crowd, which she surveys almost boldly. Lent wants her eyes to rest on him, but they don’t, shifting endlessly, almost hungrily through the crowd.
As the patrons shuffle gradually out of the tent, Lent steps forward, thrusting his business card into the Spaniard’s hand.
That night at dinner they work out the details. Lent learns that the Spaniard is actually Mexican. He suspects that the girl’s origins are also Mexican, but when the other man persists in his lie Lent doesn’t challenge him. Instead, he orders more wine. By the end of the night, Lent has more or less the whole story. The Mexican found her working as a maid in a wealthy family’s home; her ugliness was legendary in the town and she was kept on at the house as an object of fascination. But they had not hesitated to part with her for a price. According to the Mexican, she is of above average intelligence; she has already picked up a surprising amount of English with very little instruction from him. She is curious, always asking questions.
Lent nods to all of this.
You understand my interest is purely in a business relationship, he says, setting his glass down on the table. He looks momentarily into the flickering candle and watches the wax slide down the side of the candelabra. Nevertheless, such a relationship, a man traveling alone with a young woman—I'm afraid it would simply be inappropriate. I will have to marry her.
The Mexican startles and for a moment looks like he might choke. He coughs. Marry her? He says. My friend, do what you must, if you can stomach it.
So, and I am sorry to press the point, Lent says. But if I am to take this woman as my wife you can see that I have to ask—whether her virtue is intact.
Whatever virtue such a creature could have is intact, the Mexican says. Who could ever touch her, looking as she does? I couldn’t, and I haven’t.
He looks as if he wants to say more on this topic, but Lent silences him with a wave of his hand.
Of course I will have to get to know her first, introduce myself and all that. And she will have to accept me. It would be wrong otherwise. I suggest that you continue to room and board her until she does so. I will pay you half the fee now and the rest when everything is settled.
Perhaps it is unwise, but he makes one more request: he wants to see her again, tonight. He follows the Mexican through the warm streets. He offers to hire a hansom cab, but the Mexican insists it is only a short walk. He lets him into an unpromising-looking building and disappears up the stairs while Lent waits in the tattered parlor. He can’t sit, and finds himself pacing over an already well-worn track in the carpet. When he turns she is standing in the doorway; the Mexican hangs back by the staircase.
Miss Pastrana, Lent says, stepping forward. I am a deep admirer of yours.
He takes her small warm hand in his and brings it to his lips. From beneath the cuffs of her sleeves he can glimpse long, dark hair.
She looks taken aback by the kiss.
I understand you play the piano. Would you play something for me? he asks, motioning to the instrument in the corner of the room.
She nods. It is not in tune, she says, in a surprisingly clear and firm voice, like a bell.
The Mexican speaks to her in Spanish, telling her to sing.
Yes, Lent says to her, speaking Spanish for the first time, You must sing.
A big smile breaks over her face, across her ourang-outang lips.
The figure appears on stage shrouded and still. The audience falls silent. A voice rises, a thin clear soprano wavers in the air. Gently, Lent steps forward and removes the veil. Julia sings as the faces gasp and waver. She sings through their cries and their fear. This is how they come to love her.
They attend parties together. By now, her English is fluent, tinged only with the lilt of her native Spanish. She hangs on his arm, and when people ask her if it is true that she comes from Africa, she only sets her thick lips and gives a small smile. That’s his good girl.
She does not sleep much at night and reads instead, books in English and Spanish. She has announced that her favorite author is Shakespeare and demands that he take her to the theater. It is strange, how she can be at one moment so insistent, and the next so pliant.
She calls him “my darling” and brushes her lips against his forehead. The longer he knows her the more he feels that her face is a mask, that if he could peel away the hair and the extra skin he would find beneath it a beautiful woman, a her that is more real than her actual self. She would have large eyes, high cheekbones, and small, tight lips. Sometimes as he moves inside her he closes his eyes and this is the image he sees of her, but when he climaxes his eyes are always open.
He has written to hotels in Paris, Rome, and Berlin. He does not discuss aspects of the business with her, but when she sees the addresses on the envelopes she becomes as excited as a child, clapping her hands in anticipation. My darling, she says, You have given me the world.
They have already made more money in London than he had hoped. His ambition pulses inside of him. This is what it is to be somebody, he thinks. All the newspapers have written articles about them. He had once feared being no one, but when he sees the headlines he feels something relax inside of him.
The others make fun of him for taking fright. It’s just a mannequin. Leif and Jonas jostle for position, trying to undo the funny figure from the strings holding it in in place. They make lewd jokes; the ape woman has a large bosom on a small, petite body, and that face—like something out of a horror film.
Look, there’s an ape baby too, Jonas says, re-directing his flashlight. A small baby in a faded pink costume with ruffles around the throat is attached to some kind of cord, holding it in place next to the woman.
With a snap, the cord breaks. Leif tosses the baby to Karl, who catches it gracelessly, almost dropping the flashlight. It feels light and empty, like a doll filled with paper.
When they leave, they take the mannequins. They shove the woman into the back seat. Leif and Jonas climb naturally into the front seat. Karl takes the back, although it means sitting with the Ape Woman’s legs resting on his.
Who would make something like this? he asks as they pull out of the lot. It’s disgusting.
Karl watches as the city lights become brighter. He picks up the doll baby and holds it up to the light. The hair on its face feels real; they must have used actual human hair to make it. It’s hard to tell what material the mannequin is made from; the face feels dry and smooth, like papier-mâché. He pokes his finger through a small hole in the fabric. The doll smells funny, musty and vaguely chemical.
Fuck, he says loudly. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
Leif breaks and pulls over.
Calm down, Leif says. Jonas comes over with the flashlight.
The inside of the baby is not exactly human, but it is close enough, a network of dried veins, organs removed or shriveled and turned to paper.
It’s real, Jonas says.
Her too? Leif asks, motioning to the woman.
Don’t! Karl says. Don’t cut her.
Jonas takes out his pocketknife and cuts into her arm.
Oh Christ, he says. They’re fucking mummies.
Karl feels himself shaking. They drive two kilometers further and pull up near a dumpster.
I don’t think it’s right to do this, Karl says quietly, to a human body.
Well it wasn’t right to turn them into mummies either, Leif says.
You want to take them home with you? Jonas asks.
Leif and Jonas take the ape woman and the baby and toss them into the dumpster.
Karl is starting to feel sober and he doesn’t like it. The edges of things are sharpening.
This is a weird fucking night, Leif says from the front seat.
The doctor peers imperiously beneath her dressing gown. He speaks to her in Russian and she does not understand. His eyes linger much too long over her face, and his fingers press hard over her swollen stomach, as if he would like to push through her skin. She grits her teeth and tries not to groan. The doctor withdraws behind the door and another pain grabs her. It is like the undertow she experienced at the beach once as a child: it grabs her by the foot and threatens to drown her. When the pain releases her she is sweating and Theo is watching her from the door.
It’s not so bad, my darling, she says, holding out her hand. But he does not take it. She places her hand instead over her stomach, as if to undo the doctor’s touch. He was not very gentle, she says.
Sometimes the doctors must be rough, Theo says. They must do what the body needs, not what it wants.
It has grown late and Theo goes to bed, leaving the servant girl Verushka to keep vigil with her. Verushka drowses in a chair in the corner. Julia lies in the bed and waits for the waves to take her. She tries to be silent. Her body is working and she is controlled by it and controlling at the same time. She imagines the baby’s face and she wills it, she wills it, to be a face like Theo’s. She read that the mother’s thoughts can influence the child’s development in the womb, so throughout her pregnancy she has made time everyday to visualize the child. Sitting by the window, she has imagined his face: it is hairless with a sharp nose and small lips, a tiny tuft of hair on his head.
It may be a girl, Theo said once.
No, no, it’s a boy, she said. I’m sure it’s a boy.
If it’s a boy and if it’s normal she will have given Theo the best gift she could give him. Yes, a boy is best. A girl would be a better companion for her, but for the child’s sake let it be a boy. And most important, let it be normal.
Every time she reaches the cusp of sleep the pain pulls her back to wakefulness. For a long time, it is not so bad; then it compresses her, there is an unbearable pressure, she bounds from her back onto her haunches and cries out. Verushka scuttles out of the room and for a long time she knows only the wave and its needs. When the wave recedes she is aware of a candle guttering next to the bed, casting long shadows onto the ceiling. She watches the forms on the ceiling flicker, and she waits.
She knows the doctor is there because she can feel the hard, unfamiliar hands reaching inside her. She hears the doctor’s insistent command and she does not need to understand the word to know what to do, for the command is part of her and she can feel the baby struggling through her. Someone is screaming. The doctor repeats his nonsense syllable, his voice higher, more insistent. As she pushes the baby out, she feels something break inside her, but in that moment she thinks all will be well: she can die if she has to because she has done it.
The doctor is holding something in his arms. He is slapping her baby and she reaches out to try to stop him. There are small, thin squawks.
Let me see him, she says, still reaching out her arms.
The doctor is very quiet. Theo is there in the room, though she does not know when he came in. The doctor places the baby in her arms.
It is a boy, covered all over in thick downy hair. She begins to weep silently. Theo calls her the Bear Woman and here is her bear cub. But oh, she loves him!
She looks up at Theo. His face is very pale.
Theo, she says.
She wants him to reach down and take her hand or touch the baby.
Instead he jerks his head away from them and begins to bark. He yelps empty peals of laughter, and she turns from him, as if to shield the child from the sound.
Hours pass. The baby feels too warm in her arms. Its rib cage expands, heaves, pants. She holds him to her breast, but he does not latch on.
Do something, she tells the doctor.
Theo comes finally and sits beside her on the bed, resting a hand on her shoulder.
We must prepare ourselves, he says.
An hour later, the child dies in her arms. When it has grown cold, they take it away from her and carry it to another room.
Now the broken thing inside her asserts itself. She feels cold and then very hot. Verushka hovers over her, a soupspoon trembling in her fingers, as if afraid to draw too close to her monster teeth. She forces herself to wrap her lips around the spoon.
She would like to live after all. There are still so many places she would like to see, cities she wants to return to. She knows that Theo has never loved her, not the way that she loves him. But what a life she has had, the things and places she has seen. All the looks of pity she has seen in the audience’s faces. What they don’t understand, what those people can’t understand, is that she had the chance to love. She is so ugly, yet he gave her the chance to love.
Love, she says, turning toward Theo. But she sees only Verushka’s thin face, peering down at her over the candle’s flame.
Zenora has a beard that hangs nearly to her waist. At Lent’s insistence she lets it grow long. In the evenings she washes and perfumes it and combs it out the way she does her hair. For exhibits she puts her long braids up in a bun to accentuate the beard. He has paid for music lessons, but they have had no effect; she remains tone-deaf and her singing sets his nerves on edge. She speaks only German and has yet to pick up a word of English; his German is rather poor. But from what he can tell she is not much of a conversationalist. Her favorite things are bonbons and fine dresses, which he buys for her in abundance.
Anyway, she has made him rich. Or, more exactly, Julia’s death has made him rich. Zenora had trained as a dancer before he found her, and now at exhibits she dances next to Julia and the baby. She wears long flowing skirts that swish around her ankles and she rolls her hips in front of the glass case. The sign reads “Julia Pastrana, Bear Woman with Baby.”
He did not hesitate about the embalming. Those who think it in bad taste misunderstand him. Even now he still receives letters, usually from irate English ladies, telling him he should be ashamed of himself. They accuse him of displaying his dead wife and son’s bodies for profit. But what he has made is not a display: it’s a monument. He has memorialized her forever—and the baby. He doesn’t know how he feels about the baby. It must be his; he never had reason to doubt Julia’s fidelity. But when he looks at it even now he sees only her, nothing of himself in it. It is probably for the best that it died.
When he is not working, he goes to the Basilica de Santa Croce. She would have loved Florence. They made a trip to Rome but had been in such a hurry to get on to Germany that they hadn’t stopped here. She had already picked up a little Italian, and he had purchased a copy of the Divine Comedy for her. She took to it quite naturally; it must have been her Catholicism. When he visits Dante’s tomb he brings flowers to place on it in her memory.
He has trouble sleeping at night. His mind remains active even when his body would rest. Creeping out of bed, he pulls on his clothes and walks to the fairgrounds through the deserted streets. She is locked away safely inside the central pavilion. He lets himself in with his keys and lights a candle. Opening the glass pane, he steps up to stand in front of her. He has gotten used to the replacement of her scent by that chemical smell, to the glassy gaze of her eyes, those eyes that were once so bright and searching.
You died too soon, he tells her. Holding the candle at a safe distance, he leans his face against hers. The brush of wispy beard feels familiar, but the skin underneath is cold and papery.
Sinaloa, Mexico 1836
Two girls, playing in the dirt. One is a normal girl, hair pulled back in a braid, and the other, smaller one, has a face like a monkey. The mother crouches near the cooking fire, patting tortillas between her hands.
After the birth the neighbors came to gawk. Everyone said the child would die, and just as well. The mother has lost so many of her children, but this one, ugly, misshapen, face covered in feathery dark hair, survives; grabbing the nipple fiercely between her oversized lips, she sucks and sucks.
The monkey child walks and talks early. She follows her sister around, chirping the first syllable of her name. When the monkey girl tries to crawl into her mother’s lap, her mother swats her away. The sister takes her and thrusts into her hands a doll made from stuffed cornhusks.
At night, the children sleep next to one another in the corner. The monkey girl rolls over, snuggles closer, and her sister extends an arm, bends the warm limb around the imperfect body and does not let go.
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