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Featured Story • March 2018 • Mythic Delirium Books

Featured Story • March 2018



The Papyrotomist


Tiffany Trent


I cut the shadows from them and they die smiling. Think of it what you will, but to find happiness in death, I think you’ll agree, is a rare thing indeed.

Look at them, all those pour souls who come to our carnival seeking some sort of respite from their mundane existence. Frowning fishwives, leather-faced barge workers, field hands bent under cotton bales, fancy women trying to forget the horror between their sodden sheets. For this breath of something different, they are willing to spend their nickels and dimes. I give them what they want and they give me what I need. If you think a life is too much to pay for entertainment, well, then you haven’t seen our show.

Our showboat creeps through the backwaters and bayous of the South. We never stay long in any one place. We each have to take our turn, you see.

All of us take sustenance from some facet of human existence. Letitia the Tattooed Lady steals vitality from our customers in the way women have done since time immemorial. The tightrope walkers and acrobats spin elaborate webs before they drain their victims dry. The clowns and harlequins feast off joy. But I am the only one who feeds on the filth of anger and despair. I am the only one whose art brings true peace.

The others are simple predators, really. Their victims serve only their own need. They provide no true service, though I suppose it could be argued that they decrease the surplus population to some extent. It’s what many of them were made for long ago in the secret places of the earth.

I alone serve a higher purpose. I am a true symbiont.

What? You doubt me?

Take this woman who has just stepped on the boat. She has heard the siren lure of our calliope across the swamps and cotton fields. She has stolen money from her drunken husband to come here after he passed out on the earthen floor of their shack. The left side of her face is heavily powdered, but it can’t hide the swelling, the bruise dark and poisonous as pokeberry juice. Her ill-fitting dress can’t hide the swelling of her belly, either. This is her fifth child, and like all but the first, this one will probably not survive.

Ah, I can almost hear your thoughts. You already have it worked out in your head that I sit her down beyond the red brocade curtains. That I adjust the lantern carefully so her shadow is thrown sharp against the white board. That I lift the dark paper and examine it, almost as closely as I’ve observed the hollows and planes of her profile. And then, you surmise, I lift the silver scissors and clip her shadow into the light.

You know what happens next.

Or perhaps you don’t.

Her sagging shoulders straighten. She smiles and years fall from her face. You can understand that she was the beauty of the county once, that her hasty wedding to the sharecropper was a mistake of passion. She was meant for better things. And she says, as she stands and exits my booth, “Thank you, sir; I don’t know how it is, but I feel so much better now.”

And I will smile and say, “My pleasure, madam.”

She will walk away, having forgotten what she paid for, unheeding of the fact that she casts no shadow now. Tonight will be the best night of her life—color never seemed so bright, music never so melodious, food never as savory or sweet.

Then, you think, she will go home. When the show is done, I will heat up my spider in the kitchen. I will slice up her shadow and fry it in pure baby fat. And while I dine, she will die, smiling.

But that is not the way of it at all.

I refuse her entry into my booth with a stern look that sends her scurrying. She leaves the boat after the show less happy than she might have been if things had gone as you wrongly assume.

I send two goons after her. They approach her husband as he slings back whiskey under the shade of the sweet gums. The poor plowhorse endures the flies and merciless sun, trapped in the middle of a row while his master has gotten stunningly, stupidly drunk. The goons tell the sharecropper that his wife was seen last night partaking in the carnival of sin on the showboat.

And though he’s never seen them before and has no reason to do so, he immediately trusts their word. They tell him every possible thing to enflame him—that she flashed her white thighs at lustful freaks as she danced on tabletops, that she bedded a strongman on a former odalisque’s divan for any man who cared to watch.

Enraged, he is on the verge of rushing home to beat her again, possibly to death. But the goons offer a sweeter revenge—that he should come to the showboat and kill the man who dishonored her. For, after all, she is a woman. She hasn’t the finer discretion and judgment of a man.

This seems suddenly like the best idea anyone’s ever given him, especially when one of the goons pulls out a revolver and says, “I will lend you my very own pistol if you come with us.”

He comes.

I feel him coming. Everyone does. His rage twists toward us, a delicious tornado. I’m surprised cows and houses don’t fall from the sky as he passes.

I smile, but Letitia is cross. She wants him for herself. The many faces of her victims—male and female—are fading into her skin, crying out both for release and food.

I glower enough that she sees my true face. “This one is mine,” I say. “And well you know it.”

She casts down her gaze and moves aside. She knows I’m right, even if you do not yet.

What? Feeling a bit uncomfortable in your silken bonds? Let me check to make sure they’re not chafing. You should not fret. You are the lucky one. You alone will get to choose the manner of your death. Such is the reward of innocence.

I am always dressed to the nines for these occasions. My beard is impeccably trimmed, my mustache curled and waxed. My boots and all my buckles gleam. My waistcoat and jacket are finer than any most of these crawdad-suckers have ever seen. I make Letitia fasten my cufflinks and straighten my neckerchief; there’s a comfort to such ritual even if it ultimately serves no purpose.

I may even kiss her sullen mouth in my excitement, and if she tries to pull away, I will hold her lips hard in my teeth until she cannot resist. Then the serpent of her tongue will slide against mine, and I will remember how it was between us long ago but can never be again.

Her hands slide down my body and find nothing but a hollow well of hunger. She will laugh low into my mouth, but I will not permit her to mock me again with words that have no meaning. Half-man. Eunuch. Cuckold.

Ha. You believed that, did you? As you are willing to believe every evil of me. I am but a mirror. What you see is your own lust. I am guessing it will indeed be Letitia for you, young man, but you of course must choose.

I am waiting and dressed immaculately when the sharecropper lurches onto the boat. Other times, our victim might indeed sample pleasures to sweeten the sting of our price. But not this man, not this time.

The goons say nothing as they seat him in my booth. This seems reasonable to him; even now, with the drink wearing off somewhat, he does not question them. I have Letitia serve him hot tea in the hopes that the last fumes of his drunkenness will dissipate. The shadows come free best when sober.

His drunkenness might dissolve, but his anger does not budge an inch.

What’s that? Do you beg for his life? You sense that this man will not die smiling, and you wish to spare him that, eh?

Observe him, if you can. His greasy, colorless hair. His craggy profile with the nose that has been broken time and again in many a tavern brawl. The close-set eyes, and their mean weasel-gleam. He’s done more than beat that pretty wife of his. You know it as surely as I do. You remember what you whispered to me over brandy the other night? About the man you saw in his field, pants around his ankles, fucking his ewe?

You laughed then. I suppose there’s a crude humor in such things, after all. Something you titter over because you can’t believe such people are real, even if you see them with your own eyes. But would you laugh if you knew where else this man has been watering his carrot? Would you laugh if you knew he dipped into the well of his own daughter?

I see by your expression that you would not. You are remembering the mother and wondering if her eleven-year old daughter is just as beautiful. And you are cringing. Your own carrot has withered quite considerably with all this talk of sheep and young girls. You are better than I’ve made you out to be.

But you distract me. I have work to do.

I sharpen my scissors, the better to hone the man’s rage. Let him hear this through the curtains and wonder.

Now, I will bind this gag around you and push your chair so that you can peer just through the hole in the curtain. You can watch as I slice his anger and ugliness from him; you will see how much lighter he will be. You’ll see how he walks away, as if in a dream. How he doesn’t even make it home to molest his wife or child, but lies down in a muddy ditch, incapable of moving on without that which fueled him.

And then, I shall at last feast. I expect his darkness to be piquant, with a rich smoky flavor better than any well-aged wine. I may even let you help me cook it and feed you a bit of it, later; I have never done that before. Would you like that? Perhaps the taste of rage will help you decide.

Not every young man gets to choose the means of his death, you know. But if you choose me, I guarantee you, my beautiful boy, will go out smiling.



Tiffany Trent is the author of eight young-adult SFF novels, including the Hallowmere series and the award-winning Unnaturalists duology. She has published numerous short stories and essays in anthologies and magazines. Tiffany makes her home in the New River Valley of Virginia.

She shared that she “wrote ‘The Papyrotomist’ after visiting Bath, North Carolina, the home of the musical ‘Steamboat’ (and Blackbeard’s hideout when he was not out on the high seas!). I was intrigued by the traveling steamboat shows that were often the only entertainment for people in the backwaters, as well as the idea of a papyrotomist, also known as a silhouette cutter, being part of that entertainment. The steamboat shows were of course reviled in some outlets as being demonic, and I wondered what would happen if the steamboat actually did house a demonic crew. The story followed from there.”



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