Based on an old surrealist game, Kinderlit’s Exquisite Corpse pairs up three illustrators to collaborate on the creation of a character; the catch is that none of three know who the other two are, nor what their contributions look like. To add a little twist, after we assemble the pieces we send the creation to a children’s book author to write a little something inspired by our Exquisite Corpse.
Of note for educators and parents- please review. This story could be frightening for some readers.
When morning came, the stitch-maids were finished. They sat back from the work bench, cricking their crooked necks, slipping worn thimbles from their fingers, and plucking their silver needles from the corpse.
Marta, the youngest of them, reached up to adjust the cloth that covered her eyes. Seven hours they had been sewing the body, and in darkness the whole time. When the Doctor had shown them the blindfolds, they had laughed at him. How could they stitch, if not by sight?
‘Madness,’ old Klara had said when he’d summoned them to his lodgings on Rathstrasse. ‘What sort of Doctor are you?’
Marta had nodded. ‘We need to see what we’re working on, sir.’
Frieda stood back by the door, saying nothing, as was her way. She would listen until the last moment, and then decide for the three of them. Marta remembered her eyes, though: shining like coins in her head.
‘He thinks we’re white-hearted because we’re women.’ Klara had looked contemptuously at the blindfolds, sucking on her last tooth, her old mouth puckered up as if she might spit – but of course she did not.
‘Well,’ she’d said instead. ‘We are stich-maids, sir. We’ve seen every manner of murdering men can do. Some so foul, I couldn’t even call it butchery: you wouldn’t slaughter pigs the way we’ve seen some people killed.’
‘And we stitch-maids mend it, sir,’ Marta had said, interrupting Klara lest she lose them the customer. ‘Best as we can. Put the body back together so the family can say goodbye. So if it’s the horror you want to spare us from, sir, you can–’
‘It’s not horror he wants to hide from us.’ That’s what Frieda had said at last. ‘It’s the law.’
The Doctor’s face had been as stone until then. But now he smiled and lit one of his thin cigarillos on the candle flame. The smoke curled from his lips, smelling of cardammon and tar.
‘He doesn’t want us to see what body we’re working on because he’d hang for it,’ Frieda had said. ‘It’s no normal corpse we’re to mend for him. That’s why we’re to work with our eyes covered.’ Snatching the blindfolds from his grasp, she’d motioned to his waistcoat. ‘And that’s why he’ll pay us that whole purse for our trouble.’
Marta remembered the way the Doctor had looked down at the bulge in his jacket pocket. Eyes surprised, his smile pushed to the corners of his mouth. She remembered how he’d pulled out a leather moneybag, plump and puffed up and shiny like a blister ready to pop. Tossed it onto the table, so the clasp broke open. The coins, clattering and bursting from the insides, had all gleamed gold. One of them rolled off onto the floorboards and hit Marta’s clog and came to a rattling stop in the silence.
It was a florin.
They were all florins.
Marta’s heart had started to thud, then. She had seen more coins before only once in her life, when a highwayman had been killed fleeing from the bank on Gelderstrasse, and spilled bank notes and blood all out onto the street. Even between the three of them, and with Frieda taking the biggest share like always, a purse of florins was a fortune.
I could go pay the schoolmaster, Marta had thought in those few dizzy moments. He could learn me my letters.
And yet old Klara had held on to her stubbornness, the same way she held on to her last tooth. ‘How are we supposed to work when we can’t see what we’re stitching?’ she’d grumbled. ‘And what do you mean, he’d hang for it?’
And at last the Doctor had spoken – the only thing he’d said in all the time since they made the bargain. His voice was like the cigarillo smoke: languid and hypnotic and somehow, underneath its pleasantness, foul.
‘I shall direct your stitching,’ he said. ‘I will give precise instructions. And please believe me when I tell you: the blindfolds are not just for the safety of my life, but yours as well.’
Marta hadn’t known what he had meant then, nor had she thought about it much during those long sightless hours when they worked their silver needles into the corpse on the table, with the Doctor’s cardammon and tar of his cigarillos so strong she gagged a few times, and his foul voice whispering in their ears:
‘A long seam down this part… Use finer thread here… The stitches must be closer.’
But now, she remembered those words. Not just for the safety of my life, but yours as well.
Because here at the end of their stitching, her blindfold had slipped.
The knot must have loosened as she had knelt over the body, head bowed as if in prayer. Even though she had tied it so tight, her ears had ached from being pinned to her head.
The rag fluttered from her face and she winced from the blinding glare of the oil lamp, its light coming through her eyelids in painful yellow shards. Her hands scrabbled in her lap, but she could not find the blindfold. Perhaps it had slid down her dress and onto the floor.
She was terrified, for even though it was off, in these few moments she was still blind – from too much light now, instead of too little. She bowed her head, listening as Klara and Frieda carried on dropping their needles and thimbles back into their tins, still blindfolded, not knowing anything was wrong.
She could not hear the Doctor.
Had he seen her blindfold fall?
Was he watching her now?
Then Marta felt his finger fall lightly on her lips, silently telling her: Shhh…
Her heart was beating like a bird in her chest, its panic singing through her whole body. She felt the Doctor lean down, his lips against her ear.
‘Open your eyes,’ he whispered, so quiet that only she could hear.
Trembling on the bench, Marta did so. But she kept her head bowed. She looked down at her hands, searching over her lap in vain for a blindfold that was not there. She did not look up at the corpse. She remembered the Doctor’s words.
‘I loosened the blindfold,’ he said, his voice a murmur below the swish and sigh of Frieda and Klara. ‘I wanted you to see, Marta, what you and your stitch-sisters have helped me create.’
Marta wanted to scream. If she screamed, maybe people would come from the street and save them. But her voice was like a croak in her throat. As if the Doctor had turned her to a frog with his touch.
‘If you make a noise,’ he whispered, ‘you will be very sorry. All of you will be very sorry.’
Slowly, his finger lifted from her lips and went down to her chin.
Gently, he began to lift her head up towards the corpse.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘See what you have done.’
Marta shut her eyes as he raised her head. She would not look. She would not look. Then they they would still be safe. That was the deal. The blindfolds are not just for the safety of my life, but yours as well.
But long seconds passed, Klara and Frieda continued to tidy and shuffle, and Marta found a terrible, traitorous part of her wanted to look. Wanted to see the corpse. Because somehow to sit there with her eyes closed was a kind of torture she could not bear. Whatever lay on the table, it could not be worse than this darkness.
And so Marta opened her eyes.
It was not a man upon the table.
It was not a woman or child or beast.
It was a monster.
Klara, on the far end of the bench, had sewn together the monster’s legs: webbed they were, and made of slime.
Frieda, seated in the middle of the three, had sewn the feathered body, with its green gnarled claws.
And Marta had stitched on the head: the carved wooden head of a boy with a tree-branch nose.
The monster was so horrible, she shut her eyes again. But it was too late, for now she would always see it. It would always be there. In the darkness behind her eyelids and in her nightmares and forever and always. Frieda had been right, and wrong. What they had done was against the law, but not man’s law: a law older and higher and greater than that.
‘Oh god,’ Marta whispered, but only the Doctor heard.
‘Yes,’ he said into her ear. ‘God. That is what you have helped me become. For I am creating life! The head you stitched came from a piece of wood near Florence. A carpenter there carved it into the shape of a puppet-boy, and the puppet-boy lived. Pinocchio, he was called, and his nose grew long when he heard or told lies. Well I stole that puppet-boy, and now the life from his head will flow down into the rest of the body you have stitched. Look.’
And as Marta looked, she saw the dead fingers of the corpse.
‘Our work is done, Doctor.’ Frieda sat in her blindfold, arms folded, face tired but pleased. She did not see the fingers twitching on the table beside her. ‘When do we get our money? When can we leave?’
‘In just a moment,’ said the Doctor. ‘You can leave very soon, with your money too.’
And now Marta did begin to scream, because the wooden nose of the boy, hearing the Doctor’s words, had begun to grow.
When we asked illustrator Henry Cole to contribute to The Exquisite Corpse, we didn’t expect him to shoot for bonus points… But he did, and we ended up with four heads from which to choose. We liked them so much we decided we couldn’t keep them all for ourselves. View all four versions of the Corpse HERE.
Henry Cole is an American author and remarkably versatile illustrator of children’s literature. His latest, Spot, the Cat, will be released by Simon & Schuster March 1, 2016.
Insanely talented author-illustrator Briony May Smith’s first picture book, Imelda and the Goblin King, was published by Flying Eye Books in 2015. It won the prestigious Kindie Award for Best Picture Book – International and was nominated in the Emmylou’s Choice category.
Gemma Merino was a student at The Cambridge School for Art when she was awarded the prestigious Macmillan Prize for Children’s Illustration in 2011. The book she won for, The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like the Water, was published in 2013 by MacMillan. The follow up, The Cow Who Climbed A Tree, was released in October 2015, also by MacMillan. (Read our review HERE.)
Sam Gayton is a London-based author of middle grade fiction whose novels include Lilliput (Peachtree, 2015), The Snow Merchant (Anderson Press, 2011), and Hercufleas (Anderson Press, 2015). His latest, The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn, is out tomorrow (February 2, 2016) from Margaret K. McElderry Books; it was illustrated by Poly Bernatene, whose Proust Questionnaire can be found HERE.