The Skeleton’s Holiday

Excerpted from The Debutante and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington, with an Introduction by Sheila Heti and an Afterword by Marina Warner

The skeleton was as happy as a madman whose straightjacket had been taken off. He felt liberated at being able to walk without flesh. The mosquitoes didn’t bite him anymore. He didn’t have to have his hair cut. He was neither hungry nor thirsty, hot nor cold. He was far from the lizard of love. For some time, a German, a professor of chemistry, had been eyeing him, thinking he might convert him into delicious ersatz: dynamite, strawberry jam, garnished sauerkraut. The skeleton knew how to give him the slip, by letting fall a young zeppelin bone, on which the professor pounced, reciting chemical hymns and covering the bone with hot kisses.

The skeleton’s lodgings had an ancient head and modern feet. The ceiling was the sky, the floor the earth. It was painted white and decorated with snowballs in which a heart beat. He looked like a transparent monument dreaming of an electric breast, and gazed without eyes, with a pleasant and invisible smile, into the inexhaustible supply of silence that surrounds our star.

The skeleton didn’t like disasters, but to suggest that life did have its hazardous moments, he had placed an enormous thimble in the middle of his fine apartment, on which he sat from time to time like a real philosopher. Sometimes he danced a few steps to the tune of Saint-Saëns’s ‘Danse Macabre.’ But he did it with such grace, with such guilelessness, in the manner of midnight dances in romantic, old-fashioned graveyards, that nobody seeing him would have thought of anything unpleasant.

Satisfied, he contemplated the Milky Way, the army of bones that encircles our planet. lt sparkles, glitters, shines with all its myriad little skeletons that dance, jump, turn somersaults, do their duty. They welcome the dead from the thousand fields of honour, the honour of hyenas, adders, crocodiles, bats, lice, toads, spiders, tapeworms, scorpions. They provide first counsel, guide the first step of the newly dead, who are wretched in their abandonment, like the newborn. Our repugnant eminent cohorts, cobrothers, cosisters, councles and -aunts who smell of wild boar and have noses encrusted with dry oysters, are transformed upon dying, into skeletons. Have you heard the appalling moan of the dead in slaughter? It’s the terrible disillusionment of the newly born dead, who’d hoped for and deserved eternal sleep but find themselves tricked, caught up in an endless machinery of pain and sorrow.

The skeleton got up every morning, clean as a Gillette blade. He decorated his bones with herbs, brushed his teeth with ancestor marrow, and lacquered his nails with Fatma Red. In the evening, at cocktail time, he went to the cafe on the corner, where he read the Necromancer’s Journal, the paper favoured by high-toned corpses. Often he amused himself by playing dirty tricks. Once he pretended to be thirsty and asked for writing materials; he emptied the inkpot between his jaws into his carcass: the ink stained and spotted his white bones. Another time he went into a joke shop and bought himself a supply of those Parisian pleasantries, imitation turds. One evening he put some in his chamber pot, and his servant never got over the shock in the morning: to think that a skeleton who neither ate nor drank did his business like the rest of us.

It happened that one day the skeleton drew some hazelnuts that walked about on little legs across mountains, that spit frogs out of mouth, eye, ear, nose, and other openings and holes. The skeleton took fright like a skeleton meeting a skeleton in bright daylight. Quickly he had a pumpkin detector grow on his head, with a day side like patchouli bread and a night side like the egg of Columbus, and set off, half reassured, to see a fortune-teller.

Translated from the French by Katherine Talbot