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Excerpt

“Let’s Play Dead”

Senaa Ahmad

October 12, 2021 
The following is a short story from Senaa Ahmad, featured in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021. Ahmad’s short fiction also appears in The Paris Review, Pushcart Prize XLVI, Best Canadian Stories 2021, and The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Vol. 2. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Fiction and received the 2019 Sunburst Award for Short Fiction. She's working on a short story collection.

There was a man, let’s call him Henry VIII. There was his wife, let’s call her Anne B. Let’s give them a castle and make it nice. Let’s give her many boy babies but make them dead. Let’s give him a fussy way of being. Let’s make her smart and sneaky, because it’s such a mean thing to do.

Let’s make it so she can’t escape.

Let’s seal the bottle, and shake it, and shake until our hands fall off.

*

It takes two swings to cut off her head. Everyone does their best to pretend that the first one didn’t happen. In the awkward silence afterward, the swordsman says something about mercy or justice, a strangely fervent soliloquy in French that might have made Anne herself emotional, but it’s a touch long-winded, and no one’s paying him any attention. And she’s dead, so it’s especially beside the point.

The ministers dither in the courtyard, chancing last looks, murmuring, Exquisite mouth, just exquisite. She is so beautiful, they agree, even beheaded.

Henry will return to the body later, when everyone is gone and what’s left of her has been moved to the chapel. He will stand on the threshold, halfway between one momentous decision and the next. He will kneel on the dais beside her severed head and lay one ornately rubied hand along her frigid cheekbone. Maybe he will stay five minutes. Maybe he will stay 35. Maybe he will cry softly, but it doesn’t matter, because there isn’t a nosy patron around to commission an oil painting for the textbooks, and it doesn’t matter because she’s dead, she’s still very, very dead.

He will leave as furtively as he came, wiping his hand on his smock. Anne’s headless body and bodiless head will be left to their own devices, her blood blackening, thickening on the ground, the gristle of her neck tougher with every minute. The clock ticks. Night falls.

It is her head that speaks first. It says, “Is he gone?”

Her body spasms, maybe a shrug, or maybe just a reflex.

Her head opens its eyes and looks this way, that way. It says, “It’s over? It really worked?”

*

We don’t need to stick around while her body crawls its way to her head and fits itself back together. Every excruciating inch of the stone floor is a personal coup, and every inch lasts the whole span of human history. It is slow. It is clumsy. The head falls off a couple of times. The body is floppy with atrophy. There is a lot of blood. She probably, definitely cries. It does not befit a queen.

*

He is reading the Saturday paper, still in his shirtsleeves, when she breezes in the next morning. The horizon of the paper lowers to the bridge of his nose. He is a man who wears his tension in the way of a beautifully tuned piano, and in this moment he vibrates at a bewildered middle octave.

“Anne,” he says, at an absolute loss.

“Henry,” she says, the picture of politeness.

She sits at the table. Not a hair out of place, not a leaky vein in sight. She butters her toast in four deft strokes. A servant steps out from the shadows to fill her teacup to the brim. It’s all very serene, domestic. If it takes her a few tries to put her toast back on the plate, or if he dabs his napkin with a little extra violence, well, who can say. She slurps her tea, which they both know he hates. He hoists his newspaper back up. Like this, they go on.

*

Of course she knows what comes next. Let’s not fib.

She is seized from her bed some weeks later, in a state of drowsy dishabille, the wardens bristling with royal braid. This night will have the consistency of a dream. The palace swims in sound and darkness. The youngest one, the boy or man who grips her arm with one rubbery fist and studiously avoids her gaze, reminds her of the sons she has lost in the womb. She wants to tell him, Don’t worry, the thing you’re afraid of, the girl, the job, the rising cost of real estate in London, it will all work out someday—you’ll see, it all comes to pass, but he is leading her to her death, so it seems a bit impolite.

The cooks are baking down in the kitchen. The yeasty comfort of this aroma, which reminds her of the seam of volcanic heat that escapes when she cracks a fresh loaf, of a day opening beneath her, is too much. She shuts her nostrils. Her silk nightgown flaps at her ankles. When she can, she reaches out and touches the walls, the radiators, the edges of doorframes. Reminding herself that she is here, now, she is alive, that this dream is all too real. She can’t falter yet. There’s work to do.

A gibbet stands in the courtyard beneath a lonesome moon. They thread the noose around her neck with genteel care, snugly, even though the youngest one quakes every time his skin makes contact with hers. Up in the turret window, she sees Henry watching at a distance, as he does best. A coward in his big-boy breeches.

It is a quick death. The noose is tight. The drop is long. No one’s trying to be cruel here. One person cries out but is quickly silenced. The wardens double-check, triple-check to make sure she’s properly dead this time. From the courtyard to the turret, they flash a thumbs-up to Henry. He lets the curtain fall. This time, he does not visit her tenderly. It is done.

The wardens will return to their card games, all except the youngest one, who will mourn her without meaning to. He will simmer with sorrow for hours until, without warning to himself or others, he punches a wall so hard he fractures most of the knuckles in his right hand, leaving a fist-size whorl of buckled plaster as a signature.

And when she wakes up, hours later, on a slab of wintry marble in the royal morgue, it’s with a broken neck and very little air in her lungs. She adjusts her neck the way she might correct a crooked hat—difficult without a proper mirror, but she manages. She tightens the belt on her flimsy nightgown and slips through the haunted halls, pausing only when she reaches the king’s chambers. She doesn’t knock. She doesn’t crow or look for consolation, although the pang is there, and it feels unstoppable. Instead, with great effort, she continues on to her apartments, where she goes right back to bed. She is wiped and the throb in her neck is telling her to conserve strength. But most of all, it is such a trivial insult to him, so small, so vicious, to fall asleep as soundly as she does this night.

*

For a time, it is quiet. Henry waits. He consults his advisers, who are just as baffled. He tries to get his head around the situation, but at least he has the good grace to do it far from her.

You will want to hear that Anne takes solace in these precarious days, so let’s say that’s true: She takes that trip she always meant to, an ethereal island resort where every day the indigo waters whisper Get out, get out while you still can and the jacarandas whistle a jaunty tune of existential dread. She cashes in her many retirement portfolios, she doesn’t so much throw parties as fling them, handfuls of bacchanalia into those feverishly starlit nights.

Or: She digs her heels deep into the Turkish carpets of her palatial apartments and doesn’t budge. In the bruised hours between dusk and midnight, she feels a joy so grandiose that it fills the empty canals and sidewalks within her. She takes to promenades around the gardens, drinking in the virtuous geraniums in their neat rows and the slightly ferocious hedge maze with its blooming thistles and uncertain corners. She grows sentimental about centipedes and spiders and wasps and belladonna and ragwort and nettles and every other hardscrabble weed, every pernicious pest. I’m still here, she says to the wasps, the centipedes, the belladonna, the ragwort. I’m still here.

The joy of the narrow escape is that it unfurls into hours, hidden doors that lead to secret passages of days, even if those days are numbered, even if she knows it. None of it is hers and it’s all she’s got. She loses herself, like a woman in a myth, unstuck in borrowed time, unraveling with possibility.

And yes, maybe she feels a few inches of gratitude for the armistice he has granted her. And yes, of course, the waiting days smother her, the twinned knowing and not-knowing what happens after, imagining Henry at every turn, cartoony with rage or puzzlement, but what is she to do?

*

After that, he drowns her himself. And who could blame him? If you want a job done right, you’d better know the end of this sentence. He comes upon her in the bath. He wraps his hands around her bare shoulders and thrusts her beneath the bathwater. Soap bubbles and air bubbles bloom in multitude. An artery in his skull skitters wildly. The water fights. The walls steam with tension.

She tries to thrash away from him, of course. She tries to defend herself, of course. But he’s six foot two, built like a linebacker, and she is not. There is nothing more complicated here. He is not the first man to do this, or the wealthiest, or the angriest. He certainly isn’t the last. As they say, it’s a tale as old as time.

Eventually the water stills. Her body floats. He sits on the brim of the tub, head bowed, the cuffs of his doublet dripping, his fingers pruning a gentle shade of violet. Up close, murder is a messy business, decidedly unroyal, too much flesh and screaming. He sits in wait—for how long, who knows. When the surface moves again and she sits up, feral-eyed and vomiting bathwater, he sighs.

“What do we do with you?” he says, not so much a question as a regret. And she has no answer, of course she has no answer.

*

It is he who helps her out of the tub, although she resists. He hands her the bathrobe, courteously studying the mosaic of the floor while she covers up. He helps her back to her rooms.

You will want her to scream at him, perhaps. To shove her house key through the soft wetness of his eye, to land a solid, bone-cracking punch to his solar plexus, or at the very least to kick him in his royalest of parts, but she has just survived death. She is alive. Today, that will have to be enough.

*

Anne’s ladies never stray far. Where are they going to go? They hold their tongues. They massage their fists back into impassive hands. They, too, have intimate knowledge of the place between a rock and an even harder rock.

Sometimes they will perform small acts of metonymy. A pamphlet folded into a paper airplane is a clandestine invitation to the city. They will fetch her those darling meringue pastries if she is doleful, and so when they say, We will bring you the French cookies, it means We are rooting for you to find a way.

Or: An elegantly embroidered handkerchief means I bayoneted this cloth 9,042 times and imagined it was the flesh of your enemies. A pair of white gloves means We will help you bury the bodies. We will not ask questions. We know you did what had to be done.

If they tune up her automobile restlessly, it’s to say, Are you listening? We have a plan.

A book of poems with no poems inside is this: You are not defined by the tragedy of it. There is always one more page.

They will nod with such enthusiasm that they black out, which means Do you know how much we hate this?

Sometimes they will weep in private, because there is too much to be said and nowhere to say it. Because they know that leaving is the most dangerous thing she can do. Because all they want is the impossible and is that really so much? Because this is one of the very few ways they can uncork their anger, and it is such a fine vintage, the very best. Because their fury is the scaffolding upon which their waiting lives are begotten, and it is so fathomless and pure, it clenches up their jaws and grinds their teeth into their gums. In this particular case, their tears mean We will be your remembrance. We will salt the earth with the blood of our eyes so nothing can ever grow again.

*

Henry is learning.

He gets crafty. He invents the portable long-barreled firearm.

Then he invents the firing squad. Then he invents acute ballistic trauma. Then he sends his wardens to find her.

But while he’s busy doing all that, she’s been busy, too, inventing: cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The telephone. The 911 call. First-response teams. Modern-day surgery. Organ transplants. Crash carts. Gurneys. Subsidized medicine. She improvises like it’s the only thing she knows how to do.

It is ugly, obviously. There is quite a lot of blood and gore and spattered internal organs. But she lives. Still, she lives.

*

Lest you think it’s all maudlin garden strolls and gallows touched by moonlight, let’s admit that Anne and Henry still have their moments. Like the time a scullery maid starts a stovetop fire and trips the palace-wide alarm. All around the castle, the sprinkler systems kick in, first in the kitchens, then in the great hall, and then everywhere, misting porous manuscripts, Brylcreemed foreign dignitaries, the throne room, everyone on their toilets, Henry’s collection of vintage cameras, and Anne in her finest silk pajamas, snoring over her watercolors. Still very much not dead.

She escapes to the nearest balcony. And as she wrings her ruined shirt and her hair in futility, a window creaks open and who should climb through but Henry, his arms filled with soaking scrolls almost as tall as himself. He sees her sodden in her night-clothes and begins to guffaw.

She says, “That’s not very kingly,” feeling hurt, and more vulnerable than she wants to be, and probably a little foolish.

He says, “Well, you don’t look especially queenly,” and drops the scrolls in a heap. She despairs at her reflection in the window.

“The gossip magazines are going to love this look,” she says.

“Easy fix,” he says. “Here.” He sweeps up to the balcony’s edge, blotting her from view of the courtyard. So close that she’s immediately on high alert. She steps back. Every muscle clamped.

“You need more width,” she says, with all the calm she can summon.

He begins to windmill his arms like a complete fool. He doesn’t say a word, just churns his arms up and down with intense concentration. And to her own surprise, she starts to laugh. She can’t help it. He does his best deadpan, smile uncracked, but it’s there in the twitch of his eyebrows, the twinkle in his eye.

“What’s your plan here?” she says.

“Trickery,” he says, not missing a step. “Misdirection. Excellent upper-arm strength.”

You may be thinking that this would be an opportune time to push him off the balcony, make it look like an accident, and maybe you wouldn’t be wrong. But he’s still the size of a world-class heavy-weight boxer, and she is still most decidedly not. And yes, she’s eager to please, and yes, even now, he can find ways to disarm her utterly. And yes, this moment, precious as it is, has a kind of power on its own, a force, and the ache of laughter in her abdomen will sustain her a few days longer. Do you really want to take that away from her?

*

It’s easy to say that it becomes a game for him, and a game for her. In Anne’s case, if it’s a game, the game is Monopoly, her game piece is a pewter chicken décapité, the banker is a scoundrel and a cheat, the properties disintegrate every time she lands on them, and the dice are made of fire. What game is this to him? If he’s winning, does it even matter?

But for her, how’s this for an alternative: On a spectral day in autumn, a cockroach tumbles across Anne’s writing desk like a very squirmy, very small shooting star. It is swift, intrepid. In its wayward progress, it hemorrhages anxiety.

Its clumsy, heroic journey plucks the tenderest meat inside her. Is it any surprise that she sees something in the cockroach that hums on the same frequency as she does? She builds tranquil highways with her hands, one at a time, and is rewarded when the roach travels safely through. Her triumph is no small thing.

She hopes it is a girl cockroach, that the baseboards and the cracks in the wall are seething with her unhatched eggs, that beneath the floors the concrete is bulging with her magnificent cockroach babies. She hopes they are abundant and hungry. That every day, each year, the cockroaches and their cockroach babies encroach in an ever-expanding circle from their nest. That when civilization crumbles into the ground, and textbooks get chucked en masse into the sea, and all of this is done and gone—and it will be done, it will be gone, she’s got to believe that the universe has a long memory and a short temper and that this, this is nothing—they will still be here, in the walls, under the floors, teeming, multiplying, ravenous, devouring, surviving.

*

He has his body servant stuff handkerchiefs down her throat. What you might call a reverse magic trick. Silk handkerchiefs, floral handkerchiefs, designer ones, handkerchiefs dipped in eau de cologne, ones that carry the perfume of another woman, while Henry lurks in the doorway, exultant.

It is such an absurd way to die that she begins to laugh, and once she starts laughing, it’s too late, she can’t stop. She even helps the servant stuff them down her throat. It is not pleasurable, by any means, but it bewilders him and leaves Henry stunned.

“Um, should I keep going?” the body servant is asking Henry, the last thing she remembers before she dies.

*

Sometimes he is fuzzy on the details. Sometimes he will forget and call her by the names of his other wives and she will have to correct him. He might leave her alone if she were somebody else, it’s true. But she is unwilling to be forgotten.

“I’m Anne,” she says impatiently. “Anne. Remember? Not Jane or Other Anne or Catherine. You haven’t killed those ones yet.”

*

He lines up everyone she has known, her mother and father, her dead brothers, her childhood friends, her nursemaid, her tutors, her grandmother, her priests, the snooty cousin she almost married, all the kids in high school who made fun of her. One by one, they tell her every mean thing they have ever thought about her.

“You’re such a needy person,” her grandmother says. “I often dread the sound of your approach.”

“You’re much less attractive than you think,” says her snooty cousin.

“We always thought your jokes were kind of repetitive,” her dead brothers confess.

“You probably shouldn’t have started the English Reformation,” one of the priests says.

“I didn’t want another daughter,” her mother admits.

“You still smell like farts,” says one of the kids from school.

“I always thought you had so much potential,” says a childhood friend. “I wish I could take more pride in having known you.”

It goes on like this for hours. In the center, Anne, lovely Anne, poor Anne, with her hands over her face, bawling, full-on ugly-crying. Shoulders shuddering, snot-nosed, basically a mess. At some point, probably during her father’s seven-minute monologue about everything they could’ve spent their fortune on if she hadn’t been born, she will faint with grief and maybe dehydration, and the court physicians will not be able to revive her. Everyone goes home: her mother, father, dead brothers, and so on. She passes later in the evening, with little fanfare, most likely of a broken heart.

*

There is a version of her story where she doesn’t die again and again and again.

There is a version of her story where she shivs him in his sleep.

There is a version where she is born in the future, and when she meets Henry at one of those rickety self-serious parties at Oxford, his discount-aristocracy vibes, prickly disposition, and fixation with his own poetry are clanging alarm bells. She walks away and never looks back.

There is a version where she gives birth to a daughter. In this version of the story, Anne still dies in the most ignoble and depressing of fashions: a sword, a Frenchman, a chopping block, gawking ministers, a wordless husband. It is her daughter who will avenge her mother—with the throne she takes by force, the wars she wages, the playwrights she patronizes, the papacies she out-wits, the rebellions she crushes, the cults she accidentally spawns, the people she forgives, through all the many men she meets and never marries.

*

She wakes up one morning and the whole castle is closed for renovations. The imperial estates are empty and eerie. Set painters are giving the outer walls a fresh coat. A few crew members crawl on their hands and knees in the chapel, swabbing delicate graining details into the marble flagstones so they don’t look like plastic. In the state room, a prop maker wheels away a vase, completely oblivious to her presence. He replaces it a few minutes later with an almost identical, slightly more era-appropriate vase.

When she passes Henry in the hallway, he’s just as perplexed as she is.

But later that day, on instinct, he swipes a can of paint from the art department. He composes a sprawling landscape. A canyon, right in front of Anne’s apartments. He’s not the best artist, but what he lacks in talent, he makes up for in cruelty. When she steps out of her room, she plunges right in, all the way to the bottom of the canyon, where she breaks her leg.

She tries to call for help. Of course she does. She yells until her voice is hoarse. Her leg is an unsteady line of fire beneath her. For days after, she can still hear the sound of the bone breaking.

And this time, yes, it’s bad. She’s hungry, thirsty, in tremendous pain. She is depleted from the ache of the last death, a grief she didn’t know was still possible. She’s worn down by his anger, his relentless need. There’s a limit to what she can endure, maybe, and it doesn’t seem so far away. She can’t do this forever. Did you think she could do this forever?

Still, she looks for a way out. She tries to set the bone herself, with little success. She prays to her god for an answer. It would be better if she knew how to die, if she had the grace of a dead girl. But she is not a woman washed ashore at the start of a film, or arranged artfully in a back alley for the cameras to find. No, she’s disorderly, desperate. There is skin beneath her fingernails, and throw-up on her T-shirt.

And do we want her to die? Do we want this to be the end? Isn’t it better if she finds a miracle, a mystery machine swooping out of the sky to save her?

Think about it: Do you want her to be just another dead girl? Do you really, truly want her to die?

*

She does not die this time. One of the production assistants drops a permanent marker down the canyon by accident and Anne scrawls an amateurish ladder to freedom. Or, no, as everyone’s packing up to leave, a decorator spies the velvet flag she’s manufactured out of her French hood. He doesn’t seem to understand who she is, but she bribes him to haul her out with two fat pearls.

Either way, it’s definitely a miracle. Most unexpected. We’ll leave it up to you.

*

On another day, she rolls over and looks at him.

“What?” he says.

“It doesn’t have to be this hard, right?” she says. “We don’t have to live like this.”

He doesn’t respond right away. He takes so long, she thinks he is considering the enormity of her question, that perhaps it has left him winded. She thinks maybe this is the moment he will realize how pointless it is, how hard she’s trying, how much time he’s wasted, how defeated they both are. Maybe he will say, Huh, why didn’t I ever think of that.

But he doesn’t answer, no surprise. He doesn’t have anything to say. Maybe it’s too obvious for words. Maybe he doesn’t think she deserves a response. When he looks at her, she has the sense of a man who is making up his mind one way or another. A man who stares at a dead end and sees his opportunity.

*

Maybe you will want to look away for this part.

She will be taken to a laboratory, which, in the style of laboratories of the time and perhaps every laboratory in every time, feels a bit like the underbelly of a dungeon. Here she will be injected with a poison that liquefies her insides in a matter of hours. One of her captors will spill the poison on himself and this will derail the proceedings. They will perform an autopsy to confirm that she is dead. With a delicacy that is surgical, or at least very thorough, they will crack every bone in her body. They will take out her internal organs, still gooey and falling apart, and feed them to any nearby dogs, who may need a fair amount of persuading. She will wake several times, but never for long. There will be quite a lot of screaming, most likely, but you don’t want to hear about that.

They will set her corpse on fire, and put the scorched bone fragments and teeth and shreds of flesh into a box. They will ship the box somewhere very far away, perhaps the remote island from earlier on. They will wrap the box in weights and cast it into the ocean. They will train a shark to develop a palate for mysterious boxes wrapped in weights so it can devour her remains. They will send a nuke from outer space to the precise coordinates of the shark. The bomb will vaporize the island, too, and everyone who lives there, a few thousand tidy deaths, but it’s probably worth it.

*

They dispatch a courier to Henry immediately. The courier tells him, “She’s dead,” and Henry sags against the wall in relief. He spends the day in devout prayer. He waits a week or two for the obvious to happen. But no, she doesn’t return.

He asks for extravagant bouquets to be delivered to her apartments, a mixtape of her favorites: English roses, bloody chrysanthemums, black tulips. He summons an architect to begin the blueprints for her memorial. He spends a whole day telephoning her parents and loved ones to break the news, with each call recalibrating his gravity, sorrow, and air of quiet suffering, depending on how much they care.

He will come to his bedroom later that night, a little weary, and there she will be, just like that. No explanation. She will be curled up in his favorite armchair like the slyest of cats, fast asleep, looking content. Fully intact, organs back in her body, insides unliquefied, most definitely not in a box, or a shark, or an ocean, or heaven, or hell.

*

Do you want to know how she did it?

Here’s how she did it: her ancestors were microorganisms, and a few years later here she is. The secret is this: her great-grandparents were monkeys and now she can do long division. The only trick is to know better. Didn’t anyone teach you to know better?

Here’s how she did it: she was always rooting for the cockroach. No one mourns the cockroaches, the dust mites, the bacteria, the weeds, the worms. The chickens that endure their own beheadings. But she remembers. She remembers the things that survive and those that don’t, and there are so many that don’t, so very many.

Here’s how she did it: she knows there’s no difference between the entrance and the exit. It’s not so difficult to turn around and walk right back in. Is it?

Here’s how she did it: no one wants to see her die. Did you know it’s that easy, to stay alive?

When you die, you should tell all the dead girls.

__________________________________

From The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021, edited by Veronica Roth. The story first appeared in The Paris Review. Excerpted with permission from Mariner Books.




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